Cultural Evolution

Human cultures include among other things mental representations with some between-group differences and within-group similarities. Ecological constraints, historical conditions, and power relations may influence the transmission of culture. A cognitive account assumes that, all these being equal, some trends in culture result from universal properties of human minds. These may account for patterns of change as well as for stability over time and space.

In the past, various forms of evolutionism described cultures as cognitively different and some of them as intrinsically more complex or developed than others (see Ingold 1986). In this view, differences in social and economic complexity between human groups corresponded to cognitive differences between peoples or races. It is clear to modern cognitive scientists that this is untenable. Different environments make different demands on a cognitive system, but there is no hierarchy of complexity or development between them, and the relevant cognitive structures are typical of the human species as a whole.

A cognitive approach must address three related questions: (1) Is cultural transmission similar to genetic transmission? (2) How did hominization lead to the appearance of culture? and (3) How are cultural representations constrained by the human genotype?

1. Are cultural memes like genes? Many authors have suggested that cultural evolution could be modeled on terms derived from natural selection (Campbell 1970). Mentally represented units of information, usually called memes (Dawkins 1976), result in overt behavior, are passed on through social interaction and modified by memory and inference. Different memes may have different cultural fitness values: culture evolves through differential transmission of ideas, values and beliefs (Durham 1991: 156).

Coevolution theories describe significant trends in meme transmission using the formal tools of population genetics (Lumsden and Wilson 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985; Durham 1991). Patterns of transmission and change depend on quantitative factors, such as the frequency of a trait in cultural elders or the number of variants available in a given group, but also on cognitive processes. Durham, for instance, makes a distinction between primary values, a set of evolved, universal propensities toward certain representations, and secondary values, socially acquired expectations concerning the possible consequences of behavior (1991: 200, 432).

An alternative to replication is an epidemiological model, in which cultural evolution is construed as the outcome of mental contagion (Sperber 1985). This approach emphasizes the differences between gene and meme transmission. Cultural representations are not literally replicated, because human communication is intrinsically inferential and works by producing publicly available tokens (e.g., utterances, gestures) designed to change other agents' representations (Sperber and Wilson 1986). Cultural epidemics are distinct from a replication process in that acquisition typically produces variants rather than copies of the representations of others; rough replication, then, is an exception that must be explained, rather than the norm (Sperber 1996).

2. What made (and makes) culture possible? There are important differences between various types of animal traditions and complex, flexible human cultures, which often show an accumulation of modifications over generations (i.e., the ratchet effect; Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner 1993: 508). Humans may have developed very general learning capacities that allow them to acquire whatever information can be found in their environment. Alternatively, EVOLUTION may have given humans a more numerous and complex set of specialized cognitive capacities.

The first type of explanation can be found in Donald's account of the appearance of cognitive plasticity as a crucial evolutionary change. The primate mind became modern by developing a powerful learning device without constraining restrictions as to the range of mental contents that could be learned (Donald 1993). An explanation in terms of more specific capacities is Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner's (1993) account of cultural learning, as distinct from social learning based on IMITATION and found in higher primates. Cultural learning requires mind-reading and perspective-taking capacities. Obviously, these capacities would have been boosted by the appearance of verbal communication.

One may push this further and argue that the appearance of culture depended, not on a more powerful general learning capacity, but on a multiplication of specialized capacities (Rozin 1976, Tooby and Cosmides 1989). This would have been less costly in evolutionary terms. It only required gradual addition of small modules rather than the sudden appearance of a general and flexible mind. Also, it makes more computational sense. An unbiased all-purpose learning capacity could be overloaded with many adaptively irrelevant facts and correlations in the environment. These considerations lead to the research program of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, which specifies a large number of cognitive adaptations. These are specialized in particular aspects of experience that would have been of plausible relevance to fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, though not necessarily in a modern environment. To some extent, the archaeological record supports this notion of specialized microcapacities appearing side by side and making up an ever more complex mind. However, late developments (in particular, the cultural differences between Neanderthals and modern humans) may also suggest that communication between modules was as important as development in each of them (Mithen 1996).

3. Is culture constrained by genes? What are the connections between the genotype and recurrent features of culture? Coevolution theories have challenged the assumption of early human SOCIOBIOLOGY that people's concepts and values generally tend to maximize their reproductive potential (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1973). Most cultural variants are adaptively neutral, and many are in fact maladaptive, so coevolution models postulate different evolution tracks for genes and memes. Beyond this, one may argue that evolved properties of human cognition influence cultural evolution in two different ways.

First, human minds comprise a set of ready-made behavioral recipes that are activated by particular cues in the natural and social environment. Whether those cues are present and which capacities are activated may vary from place to place. So different environments set parameters differently for such universal capacities as social exchange, detection of cheaters, or particular strategies in mate-selection and in the allocation of parental investment (see Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby 1992 for a survey of these domains).

Second, humans develop universal conceptual structures that constrain the transmission of particular representations. This can be observed even in beliefs and values whose overt content seems culturally variable. Children gradually develop a set of quasi-theoretical, domain-specific assumptions about the different types of objects in the world as well as expectations about their observable and underlying properties. The experimental evidence demonstrates the effects of such principles in domains like THEORY OF MIND, the perception of mechanical causation or the specific properties of living things (Hirschfeld and Gelman 1994). This intuitive ontology has direct effects on the acquisition of cultural representations.

In some domains, information derived from cultural input is acquired inasmuch as it tends to enrich early skeletal principles. This is the case for number systems, for instance, as cultural input provides names for intuitive concepts of numerosity (Gallistel and Gelman 1992). In the same way, FOLK PSYCHOLOGY is built by using cultural input, for instance about motivation, emotion, through-processes, and so on, that provide explanations for the intuitions delivered by our theory of mind. In folk biology, too, cultural input that is spontaneously selected tends to enrich intuitive principles about the taxonomic ordering of living species or possession of an essence as a feature of each species (Atran 1990). Even such social constructs as kinship terms or notions of family and race can be construed as enriching an intuitive apprehension of social categories (Hirschfeld 1994).

In other domains, cultural input is selectively attended to inasmuch as it violates the expectations of intuitive ontology. Religious ontologies, for instance, postulate agents whose physical or biological properties are counterintuitive, given ordinary expectations about intentional agents. Such combinations are very few in number and account for most cultural variants in religious systems (Boyer 1994). Their presence in individual religious representations can be demonstrated experimentally (Barett and Keil 1996).

In some domains more complex processes are involved. This is the case for scientific theories and other forms of scholarly knowledge that diverge from intuitive ontology. Such systems of representations generally require considerable social support (intensive tuition and specialized institutions like schools). They generally include an explicit description of their divergence from intuitive ontology, and therefore a METAREPRESENTATION of ordinary representations about the natural world. This is why such systems typically require LITERACY, which boosts metarepresentational capacities and provides external memory storage, allowing for incremental additions to cultural representations.

Human cognition comprises a series of specialized capacities. Transmission patterns probably vary as a function of which domain-specific conceptual predispositions are activated. So there may be no overall process of cultural transmission, but a series of domain-specific cognitive tracks of transmission. Models of cultural evolution are tautological if they state only that whatever got transmitted must have been better than what did not (Durham 1991: 194). This is where cognitive models are indispensable. Experimental study of cognitive predispositions provides independent evidence for the underlying mechanisms of cultural evolution.

See also

Additional links

-- Pascal Boyer


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