International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M440
Organized session / standard talks
Preservation and transformation in cultural evolution

Mathieu Charbonneau (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria)

Over the last thirty years, cultural evolutionary theory (hereafter: CET) has emerged as a unique perspective on the evolution of culture, distinct from approaches such as sociobiology and Santa-Barbara evolutionary psychology. CET is a rich, interdisciplinary, and increasingly fruitful methodological framework that aims at providing a naturalistic account of the origins of culture, as well as general principles for analysing and describing the evolutionary history of enculturated species. Central to CET are the ways in which individuals learn from one another, and how cultural traits get distributed through the different channels of social transmission. However, CET encompasses different approaches. Some of them hold that cultural transmission is a high-fidelity, preservative, inheritance-like process, closely resembling Darwinian evolution. Domain-general transmission biases explain (in part) how cultural variants become widespread and available for downstream changes, and change of cultural variants is assumed to be gradual and cumulative. Others approaches give more importance to the fact that cultural transmission is a transformative, reconstructive process, and highlight the importance of domain-specific cognitive mechanisms in determining the success of cultural traits. This session will critically appraise these two perspectives to study cultural transmission within CET. It will evaluate concepts central to each, and clarify how they relate to CET modelling practices. Finally, it will assess the compatibility of these two approaches, and clarify when and where each is applicable.

If we are all cultural Darwinian what’s the fuss about? Selection versus attraction in cultural evolution

Alberto Acerbi (Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Netherlands); Alex Mesoudi (Durham University, United Kingdom)

Cultural evolution studies are characterized by the notion that culture evolves accordingly to broadly Darwinian principles. However, how far the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution should be pushed is open to debate. I will examine a recent disagreement that concerns the extent to which cultural transmission should be considered a preservative mechanism allowing selection among different variants, or a transformative process in which variants are recreated each time. I argue that there is no real conflict between the two approaches, besides a focus on different aspects of cultural evolution. I will first try to clarify the respective positions, elucidating common ground and genuine disagreements. I propose that considering cultural transmission as a preservative or reconstructive process is ultimately an empirical question, and I examine how both preservative and reconstructive cultural transmission has been studied in recent experimental research in cultural evolution. I will then discuss how the relative importance of preservative and reconstructive processes may depend on the granularity of analysis and on the domain being studied.

Attracting trouble: Disambiguating the concept of cultural attractors in cultural evolution

Andrew Buskell (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

There are two main approaches to contemporary cultural evolutionary theory. The ‘California School’, whose members include Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich and others, emphasizes the role of evolved learning strategies and sampling biases. The ‘Sperber School’ on the other hand, takes as central the role of various relational properties between individuals and particular cultural behaviours, or types. In particular, they rely on a notion of cultural attractors. However, the Sperber School has not been consistent in its definition and use of this central concept. In this paper, I analyse three different characterizations of this central concept – what I call attraction as tendency, attraction as force, and attraction as outcome – suggesting that each is aligned with a different approach to modelling. Attraction as tendency is allied with a mechanistic and ethnographic approach; attraction as force with an abstract, aggregative approach; and attraction as outcome to a general, minimal modelling approach. Each of these approaches to cashing out attraction have positive and negative aspects: I here suggest that, however, while the first two approaches have proven their relevance, the third is not yet convincing.

(Re)integrating modification processes to the origins of cumulative culture

Mathieu Charbonneau (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria)

The cumulative open-endedness of human cultures represents a major break with the social traditions of nonhuman species. As traditions are altered and the modifications retained along the cultural lineage, human populations are capable of producing complex traits that no individual could have figured out on its own. A popular explanation for this fact is humans’ capacity for high-fidelity social transmission. For cultures to produce increasingly complex traditions, improvements and modifications must be kept for the next generations to build upon them, and high-fidelity transmission would thus act as a ratchet, retaining modifications and allowing the historical build-up of complex traditions. Mechanisms acting against slippage are important, of course, but cultures also need to move forward for anything important to be retained at all. In this paper, I develop a different albeit complementary line of reasoning about the population-level conditions and evolutionary implications of cumulative culture. I argue that studies of modification-generating processes and the diverse ways they pattern cumulative culture have been overlooked. There are many ways that traditions can be modified and, depending on the structure of the cultural traits and of the design space explored by the population, different kinds of modification mechanisms will lead populations to exhibit different evolutionary patterns. The conclusion I reach is that even if a population is endowed with members capable of innovating and transmitting the improvements with high-fidelity, with the wrong modification processes the structure of the design space will constrain the population to wallow in non-cumulative traditions. I illustrate my claims through the study of technical behaviours, such as tool use and tool manufacture, the very behaviours that are likely the markers of early cumulative culture in the human lineage.