Bringing cumulative technological culture beyond copying versus reasoning

Osiurak, F., Claidière, N., & Federico, G. (2022). Bringing cumulative technological culture beyond copying versus reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

See comment by Cecilia Heyes, “The cognitive reality of causal understanding” and our reply “Technical reasoning: neither cognitive instinct nor cognitive gadget“.

Abstract: The dominant view of cumulative technological culture suggests that high-fidelity transmission rests upon a high-fidelity copying ability, which allows individuals to reproduce the tool-use actions performed by others without needing to understand them (i.e., without causal reasoning). The opposition between copying versus reasoning is well accepted but with little supporting evidence. In this article, we investigate this distinction by examining the cognitive science literature on tool use. Evidence indicates that the ability to reproduce others’ tool-use actions requires causal understanding, which questions the copying versus reasoning distinction and the cognitive reality of the so-called copying ability. We conclude that new insights might be gained by considering causal understanding as a key driver of cumulative technological culture.

Impact of technical reasoning and theory of mind on cumulative technological culture: insights from a model of micro-societies

Bluet, A., Osiurak, F., Claidière, N., & Reynaud, E. (2022). Impact of technical reasoning and theory of mind on cumulative technological culture: insights from a model of micro-societies. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 9(1), 231. doi:10.1057/s41599-022-01251-z

Our technologies have never ceased to evolve, allowing our lineage to expand its habitat all over the Earth, and even to explore space. This phenomenon, called cumulative technological culture (CTC), has been studied extensively, notably using mathematical and computational models. However, the cognitive capacities needed for the emergence and maintenance of CTC remain largely unknown. In the literature, the focus is put on the distinctive ability of humans to imitate, with an emphasis on our unique social skills underlying it, namely theory of mind (ToM). A recent alternative view, called the technical-reasoning hypothesis, proposes that our unique ability to understand the physical world (i.e., technical reasoning; TR) might also play a critical role in CTC. Here, we propose a simple model, based on the micro-society paradigm, that integrates these two hypotheses. The model is composed of a simple environment with only one technology that is transmitted between generations of individuals. These individuals have two cognitive skills: ToM and TR, and can learn in different social-learning conditions to improve the technology. The results of the model show that TR can support both the transmission of information and the modification of the technology, and that ToM is not necessary for the emergence of CTC although it allows a faster growth rate.

Understanding Imitation in Papio papio: The Role of Experience and the Presence of a Conspecific Demonstrator

Formaux, A., O’Sullivan, E., Fagot, J., & Claidière, N. (2022). Understanding Imitation in Papio papio: The Role of Experience and the Presence of a Conspecific Demonstrator. Cognitive Science, 46(3), e13117. doi:

What factors affect imitation performance? Varying theories of imitation stress the role of experience, but few studies have explicitly tested its role in imitative learning in non-human primates. We tested several predictions regarding the role of experience, conspecific presence, and action compatibility using a stimulus–response compatibility protocol. Nineteen baboons separated into two experimental groups learned to respond by targeting on a touch screen the same stimulus as their neighbor (compatible) or the opposite stimulus (incompatible). They first performed the task with a conspecific demonstrator (social phase) and then a computer demonstrator (ghost phase). After reaching a predetermined success threshold, they were then tested in an opposite compatibility condition (i.e.,reversal learning conditions). Seven baboons performed at least two reversals during the social phase, and we found no significant difference between the compatible and incompatible conditions, although we noticed slightly faster response times (RTs) in the compatible condition that disappeared after the first reversal. During the ghost phase, monkeys showed difficulties in learning the incompatible condition, and the compatible condition RTs tended to be slower than during the social phase. Together, these results suggest that (a) there is no strong movement compatibility effect in our task and that (b) the presence of a demonstrator plays a role in eliciting correct responses but is not essential as has been
previously shown in human studies.

Technical reasoning bolsters cumulative technological culture through convergent transformations

Osiurak, F., Claidière, N., Bluet, A., Brogniart, J., Lasserre, S., Bonhoure, T., . . . Reynaud, E. Technical reasoning bolsters cumulative technological culture through convergent transformations. Science Advances, 8(9), eabl7446. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abl7446

Abstract: Understanding the evolution of human technology is key to solving the mystery of our origins. Current theories propose that technology evolved through the accumulation of modifications that were mostly transmitted between individuals by blind copying and the selective retention of advantageous variations. An alternative account is that high-fidelity transmission in the context of cumulative technological culture is supported by technical reasoning, which is a reconstruction mechanism that allows individuals to converge to optimal solutions. We tested these two competing hypotheses with a microsociety experiment, in which participants had to optimize a physical system in partial- and degraded-information transmission conditions. Our results indicated an improvement of the system over generations, which was accompanied by an increased understanding of it. The solutions produced tended to progressively converge over generations. These findings show that technical reasoning can bolster high-fidelity transmission through convergent transformations, which highlights its role in the cultural evolution of technology.

It happened to a friend of a friend: inaccurate source reporting in rumour diffusion

Altay, S., Claidière, N., & Mercier, H. (2020). It happened to a friend of a friend: Inaccurate source reporting in rumour diffusion. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 2, E49. doi:10.1017/ehs.2020.53

Abstract: People often attribute rumours to an individual in a knowledgeable position two steps removed from them (a credible friend of a friend), such as ‘my friend’s father, who’s a cop, told me about a serial killer in town’. Little is known about the influence of such attributions on rumour propagation, or how they are maintained when the rumour is transmitted. In four studies (N = 1824) participants exposed to a rumour and asked to transmit it overwhelmingly attributed it either to a credible friend of a friend, or to a generic friend (e.g. ‘a friend told me about a serial killer in town’). In both cases, participants engaged in source shortening: e.g. when told by a friend that ‘a friend told me …’ they shared the rumour as coming from ‘a friend’ instead of ‘a friend of friend’. Source shortening and reliance on credible sources boosted rumour propagation by increasing the rumours’ perceived plausibility and participants’ willingness to share them. Models show that, in linear transmission chains, the generic friend attribution dominates, but that allowing each individual to be exposed to the rumour from several sources enables the maintenance of the credible friend of a friend attribution.

Do guide dogs have culture?

Guillo, D., & Claidière, N. (2020). Do guide dogs have culture? The case of indirect social learning. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7(1), 31. doi:10.1057/s41599-020-0515-3

Abstract: In the study of animal behaviour, culture is often seen as the result of direct social transmission from a model to a conspecific. In this essay, we show that unrecognised cultural phenomena are sustained by a special form of indirect social learning (ISL). ISL occurs when an individual B learns a behaviour from an individual A through something produced by A. A’s behavioural products can be chemicals, artefacts, but also, we argue, behaviours of another group or species that are the consequence of A’s actions. For instance, a behaviour —guiding a blind person— can be transmitted from dog A to dog B, because the fact that dog A learns the behaviour creates in the mind of the trainer representations about the efficacy of the training practice that can be transmitted to another human, who can then train dog B. These dog behaviours have all the properties of standard cultural behaviours and spread in some dog populations through the exploitation of the social learning capacities of another group/species. Following this idea requires a change in perspective on how we see the social transmission of behaviours and brings forward the fact that certain cultural practices can spread among animals through a cultural co-evolutionary dynamic with humans or other animals.

Obstacles to the spread of unintuitive beliefs

Mercier, H., Majima, Y., Claidière, N., & Léone, J. (2019). Obstacles to the spread of unintuitive beliefs. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 1, E10. doi:10.1017/ehs.2019.10

Abstract: Many socially significant beliefs are unintuitive, from the harmlessness of GMOs to the efficacy of vaccination, and they are acquired via deference toward individuals who are more confident, more competent or a majority. In the two-step flow model of communication, a first group of individuals acquires some beliefs through deference and then spreads these beliefs more broadly. Ideally, these individuals should be able to explain why they deferred to a given source – to provide arguments from expertise – and others should find these arguments convincing. We test these requirements using a perceptual task with participants from the US and Japan. In Experiment 1, participants were provided with first-hand evidence that they should defer to an expert, leading a majority of participants to adopt the expert’s answer. However, when attempting to pass on this answer, only a minority of those participants used arguments from expertise. In Experiment 2, participants receive an argument from expertise describing the expert’s competence, instead of witnessing it first-hand. This leads to a significant drop in deference compared with Experiment 1. These experiments highlight significant obstacles to the transmission of unintuitive beliefs.

High-fidelity copying is not necessarily the key to cumulative cultural evolution

Saldana, C., Fagot, J., Kirby, S., Smith, K., & Claidière, N. (2019). High-fidelity copying is not necessarily the key to cumulative cultural evolution: a study in monkeys and children. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 286(1904), 20190729. doi:10.1098/rspb.2019.0729

Abstract: The unique cumulative nature of human culture has often been explained by high-fidelity copying mechanisms found only in human social learning. However, transmission chain experiments in human and non-human primates suggest that cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) might not necessarily depend on high-fidelity copying after all. In this study, we test whether defining properties of CCE can emerge in a non-copying task. We performed transmission chain experiments in Guinea baboons and human children where individuals observed and produced visual patterns composed of four squares on touchscreen devices. In order to be rewarded, participants had to avoid touching squares that were touched by a previous participant. In other words, they were rewarded for innovation rather than copying. Results nevertheless exhibited fundamental properties of CCE: an increase over generations in task performance and the emergence of systematic structure. However, these properties arose from different mechanisms across species: children, unlike baboons, converged in behaviour over generations by copying specific patterns in a different location, thus introducing alternative copying mechanisms into the non-copying task. In children, prior biases towards specific shapes led to convergence in behaviour across chains, while baboon chains showed signs of lineage specificity. We conclude that CCE can result from mechanisms with varying degrees of fidelity in transmission and thus that high-fidelity copying is not necessarily the key to CCE.

Convergent transformation and selection in cultural evolution

Claidière, N., Amedon, G. K.-k., André, J.-B., Kirby, S., Smith, K., Sperber, D., & Fagot, J. (2018). Convergent transformation and selection in cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(2), 191-202. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2017.12.007

Abstract: In biology, natural selection is the main explanation of adaptations and it is an attractive idea to think that an analogous force could have the same role in cultural evolution. In support of this idea, all the main ingredients for natural selection have been documented in the cultural domain. However, the changes that occur during cultural transmission typically result in convergent transformation, non-random cultural modifications, casting some doubts on the importance of natural selection in the cultural domain. To progress on this issue more empirical research is needed. Here, using nearly half a million experimental trials performed by a group of baboons (Papio papio), we simulate cultural evolution under various conditions of natural selection and do an additional experiment to tease apart the role of convergent transformation and selection. Our results confirm that transformation strongly constrain the variation available to selection and therefore strongly limit its impact on cultural evolution. Surprisingly, in our study, transformation also enhances the effect of selection by stabilising cultural variation. We conclude that, in culture, selection can change the evolutionary trajectory substantially in some cases, but can only act on the variation provided by (typically biased) transformation.

Argumentation and the Diffusion of Counter-Intuitive Beliefs

Claidière, N., Trouche, E., & Mercier, H. (2017). Argumentation and the Diffusion of Counter-Intuitive Beliefs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi:10.1037/xge0000323

Abstract: Research in cultural evolution has focused on the spread of intuitive or minimally counterintuitive beliefs. However, some very counterintuitive beliefs can also spread successfully, at least in some communities—scientific theories being the most prominent example. We suggest that argumentation could be an important factor in the spread of some very counterintuitive beliefs. A first experiment demonstrates that argumentation enables the spread of the counterintuitive answer to a reasoning problem in large discussion groups, whereas this spread is limited or absent when participants can show their answers to each other but cannot discuss. A series of experiments using the technique of repeated transmission show that, in the case of the counterintuitive belief studied: (a) arguments can help spread this belief without loss; (b) conformist bias does not help spread this belief; and (c) authority or prestige bias play a minimal role in helping spread this belief. Thus, argumentation seems to be necessary and sufficient for the spread of some counterintuitive beliefs.

Diffusion of a counter-intuitive answer (green) in groups that initially give mostly the intuitive wrong answer (red). The size of the node represents the confidence of the participants.

Physical intelligence does matter to cumulative technological culture

Osiurak, F., De Oliveira, E., Navarro, J., Lesourd, M., Claidière, N., & Reynaud, E. (2016). Physical Intelligence Does Matter to Cumulative Technological Culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/xge0000189

Abstract: Tool-based culture is not unique to humans, but cumulative technological culture is. The social intelligence hypothesis suggests that this phenomenon is fundamentally based on uniquely human sociocognitive skills (e.g., shared intentionality). An alternative hypothesis is that cumulative technological culture also crucially depends on physical intelligence, which may reflect fluid and crystallized aspects of intelligence and enables people to understand and improve the tools made by predecessors. By using a tool-making– based microsociety paradigm, we demonstrate that physical intelligence is a stronger predictor of cumulative technological performance than social intelligence. Moreover, learners’ physical intelligence is critical not only in observational learning but also when learners interact verbally with teachers. Finally, we show that cumulative performance is only slightly influenced by teachers’ physical and social intelligence. In sum, human technological culture needs “great engineers” to evolve regardless of the proportion of “great pedagogues.” Social intelligence might play a more limited role than commonly assumed, perhaps in tool-use/making situations in which teachers and learners have to share symbolic representations.

Universal Cognitive Mechanisms Explain the Cultural Success of Bloodletting

Miton, H., Claidière, N., & Mercier, H. (2015) Universal Cognitive Mechanisms Explain the Cultural Success of Bloodletting. Evolution and Human Behavior. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.01.003

Bloodletting across cultures worldwide

Figure: Bloodletting across cultures worldwide
Abstract: Bloodletting—the practice of letting blood out to cure a patient—was for centuries one of the main therapies in the West. We lay out three potential explanations for bloodletting’s cultural success: that it was efficient, that it was defended by prestigious sources—in particular ancient physicians—, and that cognitive mechanisms made it a particularly attractive practice. To test these explanations, we first review the anthropological data available in eHRAF. These data reveal that bloodletting is practiced by many unrelated cultures worldwide, where it is performed for different indications and in different ways. This suggests that the success of bloodletting cannot only be explained by its medical efficiency or by the prestige of Western physicians. Instead, some universal cognitive mechanisms likely make bloodletting an attractive form of therapy. We further test this hypothesis using the technique of transmission chains. Three experiments are conducted in the U.S., a culture that does not practice bloodletting. Studies 1 and 2 reveal that stories involving bloodletting survive longer than some other common therapies, and that the most successful variants in the experiments are also the most successful variants worldwide. Study 3 shows how a story about a mundane event—an accidental cut—can turn into a story about bloodletting. This research demonstrates the potential of combining different methodologies—review of anthropological data, experiments, and modeling—to investigate cultural phenomena.

Selective and contagious prosocial resource donation in capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and humans

Claidière, N., Whiten, A., Mareno, M. C., Messer, E. J. E., Brosnan, S. F., Hopper, L. M., . . . McGuigan, N. (2015). Selective and contagious prosocial resource donation in capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and humans. Scientific reports(5), 7631. doi: 10.1038/srep07631

Prosocial test for capuchins, chimpanzees and humans

Figure: Experimental setup with chimpanzees, capuchins and humans (adults and infants). Drawing from Jason Zampol.
Abstract: Prosocial acts benefitting others are widespread amongst humans. By contrast, chimpanzees have failed to demonstrate such a disposition in several studies, leading some authors to conclude that the forms of prosociality studied evolved in humans since our common ancestry. However, similar prosocial behavior has since been documented in other primates, such as capuchin monkeys. Here, applying the same methodology to humans, chimpanzees, and capuchins, we provide evidence that all three species will display prosocial behavior, but only in certain conditions. Fundamental forms of prosociality were age-dependent in children, conditional on self-beneficial resource distributions even at age seven, and conditional on social or resource configurations in chimpanzees and capuchins. We provide the first evidence that experience of conspecific companions’ prosocial behavior facilitates prosocial behavior in children and chimpanzees. Prosocial actions were manifested in all three species following rules of contingency that may reflect strategically adaptive responses.

Wild vervet monkeys copy alternative methods for opening an artificial fruit

pdf iconvan de Waal, E., Claidière, N., & Whiten, A. (2014). Wild vervet monkeys copy alternative methods for opening an artificial fruit. Animal Cognition, 1-11. doi: 10.1007/s10071-014-0830-4

Abstract: Experimental studies of animal social learning in the wild remain rare, especially those that employ the most discriminating tests in which alternative means to complete naturalistic tasks are seeded in different groups. We applied this approach to wild vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) using an artificial fruit (‘vervetable’) opened by either lifting a door panel or sliding it left or right. In one group, a trained model lifted the door, and in two others, the model slid it either left or right. Members of each group then watched their model before being given access to multiple baited vervetables with all opening techniques possible. Thirteen of these monkeys opened vervetables, displaying a significant tendency to use the seeded technique on their first opening and over the course of the experiment. The option preferred in these monkeys’ first successful manipulation session was also highly correlated with the proportional frequency of the option they had previously witnessed. The social learning effects thus documented go beyond mere stimulus enhancement insofar as the same door knob was grasped for either technique. Results thus suggest that through imitation, emulation or both, new foraging techniques will spread across groups of wild vervet monkeys to create incipient foraging traditions.

Cultural evolution of systematically structured behaviour in a non-human primate

Results from the experiment with picture of baboon Article headingClaidière, N., Smith, K., Kirby, S., & Fagot, J. (2014). Cultural evolution of systematically structured behaviour in a non-human primate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1797). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1541

© Simon Kirby and Nicolas Claidière
Abstract: Culture pervades human life and is at the origin of the success of our species. A wide range of other animals have culture too, but often in a limited form that does not complexify through the gradual accumulation of innovations. We developed a new paradigm to study cultural evolution in primates in order to better evaluate our closest relatives’ cultural capacities. Previous studies using transmission chain experimental paradigms, in which the behavioural output of one individual becomes the target behaviour for the next individual in the chain, show that cultural transmission can lead to the progressive emergence of systematically structured behaviours in humans. Inspired by this work, we combined a pattern reproduction task on touch screens with an iterated learning procedure to develop transmission chains of baboons (Papio papio). Using this procedure, we show that baboons can exhibit three fundamental aspects of human cultural evolution: a progressive increase in performance, the emergence of systematic structure and the presence of lineage specificity. Our results shed new light on human uniqueness: we share with our closest relatives essential capacities to produce human-like cultural evolution.

In the media:
BBC News: Baboons may share human ability to build on work of others
Hufftington Post: The ‘Human’ Quality We Share With Baboons
In French:
Pour la Science: La culture cumulative n’est pas le propre de l’homme
Science et Avenir: Le babouin s’améliore de génération en génération
Radio Canada: La culture cumulative n’est pas unique à l’homme

Frequency of Behavior Witnessed and Conformity in an Everyday Social Context

pdf iconClaidière, N., Bowler, M., Brookes, S., Brown, R., & Whiten, A. (2014). Frequency of Behavior Witnessed and Conformity in an Everyday Social Context. PLoS ONE, 9(6), e99874. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099874

Abstract: Conformity is thought to be an important force in human evolution because it has the potential to stabilize cultural homogeneity within groups and cultural diversity between groups. However, the effects of such conformity on cultural and biological evolution will depend much on the particular way in which individuals are influenced by the frequency of alternative behavioral options they witness. In a previous study we found that in a natural situation people displayed a tendency to be ‘linear-conformist’. When visitors to a Zoo exhibit were invited to write or draw answers to questions on cards to win a small prize and we manipulated the proportion of text versus drawings on display, we found a strong and significant effect of the proportion of text displayed on the proportion of text in the answers, a conformist effect that was largely linear with a small non-linear component. However, although this overall effect is important to understand cultural evolution, it might mask a greater diversity of behavioral responses shaped by variables such as age, sex, social environment and attention of the participants. Accordingly we performed a further study explicitly to analyze the effects of these variables, together with the quality of the information participants’ responses made available to further visitors. Results again showed a largely linear conformity effect that varied little with the variables analyzed.

How Darwinian is cultural evolution?

article headingClaidière, N., Scott-Phillips, T. C., & Sperber, D. (2014). How Darwinian is cultural evolution? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1642). doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0368

Abstract: Darwin-inspired population thinking suggests approaching culture as a population of items of different types, whose relative frequencies may change over time. Three nested subtypes of populational models can be distinguished: evolutionary, selectional and replicative. Substantial progress has been made in the study of cultural evolution by modelling it within the selectional frame. This progress has involved idealizing away from phenomena that may be critical to an adequate understanding culture and cultural evolution, particularly the constructive aspect of the mechanisms of cultural transmission. Taking these aspects into account, we describe cultural evolution in terms of cultural attraction, which is populational and evolutionary, but only selectional under certain circumstances. As such, in order to model cultural evolution, we must not simply adjust existing replicative or selectional models, but we should rather generalize them, so that, just as replicator-based selection is one form that Darwinian selection can take, selection itself is one of several different forms that attraction can take. We present an elementary formalization of the idea of cultural attraction.

Social learning and spread of alternative means of opening an artificial fruit in four groups of vervet monkeys

pdf icon van de Waal, E., Claidière, N., & Whiten, A. (2013). Social learning and spread of alternative means of opening an artificial fruit in four groups of vervet monkeys. Animal Behaviour, 85(1), 71-76.

Two-action experiments, in which observer individuals watch models use one of two alternative methods to achieve the same goal, have become recognized as a powerful method for studying social learning. We applied this approach to vervet monkeys, Chlorocebus aethiops, using an artificial fruit (‘vervetable’) which could be opened by either lifting a door panel on its front, or alternatively by sliding the panel to the left or right. In each of two groups a model was trained to lift the door and in two others the model slid it to either the left or right. Members of each group could then watch their model before the group was given access to multiple baited vervetables. Over the course of 100 openings we found a significant tendency for the lift and slide approaches to spread preferentially in the groups in which they were seeded. The same was true for slide left versus slide right, indicating these monkeys can attend to and learn from a fine level of detail in what others do. This effect cannot be explained by mere local enhancement since monkeys grasped a knob centred in the door to perform all techniques. Instead, imitation or emulation is implicated. No significant diminution of the tendency to adopt the seeded technique occurred among individuals learning later rather earlier in the study. Our results show that vervet monkeys have the capacity to learn from others by either emulation or imitation and what they learn has the potential to spread across their group.

Weak or Linear Conformity not Hyper-Conformity

pdf iconClaidière N, Bowler M, Whiten A (2012) Evidence for Weak or Linear Conformity but Not for Hyper-Conformity in an Everyday Social Learning Context. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30970. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030970

Conformity is thought to be an important force in cultural evolution because it has the potential to stabilize cooperation in large groups, potentiate group selection and thus explain uniquely human behaviors. However, the effects of such conformity on cultural and biological evolution will depend much on the way individuals are influenced by the frequency of alternative behavioral options witnessed. Theoretical modeling has suggested that only what we refer to as ‘hyper-conformity’, an exaggerated tendency to perform the most frequent behavior witnessed in other individuals, is able to increase within-group homogeneity and between-group diversity, for instance. Empirically however, few experiments have addressed how the frequency of behavior witnessed affects behavior. Accordingly we performed an experiment to test for the presence of conformity in a natural situation with humans. Visitors to a Zoo exhibit were invited to write or draw answers to questions on A5 cards and potentially win a small prize. We manipulated the proportion of existing writings versus drawings visible to visitors and measured the proportion of written cards submitted. We found a strong and significant effect of the proportion of text displayed on the proportion of text in the answers, thus demonstrating social learning. We show that this effect is approximately linear, with potentially a small, weak-conformist component but no hyper-conformist one. The present experiment therefore provides evidence for linear conformity in humans in a very natural context.

The transmission of genes and culture: a questionable analogy

pdf iconClaidière, N. and J.-B. André (2012). “The Transmission of Genes and Culture: A Questionable Analogy.” Evolutionary Biology 39(1): 12-24.

See the following comments too:

  • Hallgrimsdottir, H. (2012). “The GTM Analogy: The “Organismic” Metaphor Revisited?” Evolutionary Biology 39(1): 27-29.
  • Weiss, K. (2012). “Analogy Recapitulating Homology?” Evolutionary Biology 39(1): 25-26.

Abstract: Modes of cultural transmission are, by analogy with modes of genetic transmission, ways in which cultural information is transmitted between individuals. Despite its importance across the behavioral sciences and for theories of cultural evolution, no attempts have been made, to our knowledge, to critically analyze this analogy. We here aim at such detailed comparison and show that the fundamental role of modes of transmission in biology results mainly from two properties of genetic transmission: (i) what is transmitted generally does not influence the way in which it is transmitted; (ii) there is a limited number of simple and stable modes. In culture however, modes of transmission generally lack these two fundamental properties. In particular, in culture it is often the rate of evolutionary change that determines the mode of transmission. We offer some tentative explanation regarding the origins of such a fundamental difference and we conclude that cultural transmission modes are not causal mechanisms that govern the transmission of culture but mere descriptions of the way culture happens to be transmitted at a given time in a given community. This shows the limit of the analogy between biological and cultural evolution and suggests that evolutionary models and theories differ substantially between the two domains.

Integrating the Study of Conformity and Culture in Humans and Non-human Animals

pdf icon Claidière N, Whiten A (2012) Integrating the study of conformity and culture in humans and nonhuman animals. Psychological Bulletin 138: 126-145.

Conformity, defined here by the fact that an individual displays a particular behavior because it is the most frequent they witnessed in others, has long been recognized by social psychologists as one of the main categories of social influence. Surprisingly, it is only recently that conformity has become an active topic in animal and evolutionary biology. As in any new and rapidly growing field however, definitions, hypotheses and protocols are diverse, not easy to organize in a coherent way and sometimes seriously conflict with each other. Here we pursue greater coherence by reviewing the newer literature on conformity in behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology in light of the foundational work in social psychology. We suggest that the knowledge accumulated in social psychology can be exploited by behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists to bring conceptual clarity to the field, avoid some experimental pitfalls and help design new and challenging experiments. In particular, we propose that the notions of ‘informational’ and ‘normative’ conformity that, until now, have not been recognized in recent literature can resolve some important controversies. In turn, research on animal culture should be of great interest to social scientists, because understanding human culture and human uniqueness requires an evolutionary analysis of our cognitive capacities and their evolutionary origins. Our review suggests excellent opportunities for social and natural scientists to join forces in building an interdisciplinary and integrative approach to the pervasive phenomenon of conformity.

The natural selection of fidelity in social learning

pdf icon Claidière, N. and Sperber, D. (2010) “The natural selection of fidelity in social learning.” Communicative and Integrative Biology, 3:4, 1-2

Social learning mechanisms are usually assumed to explain both the spread and the persistence of cultural behaviour. In a recent article, we showed that the fidelity of social learning commonly found in transmission chain experiments is not high enough to explain cultural stability. Here we want to both enrich and qualify this conclusion by looking at the case of song transmission in song birds, which can be faithful to the point of being true replication. We argue that this high fidelity results from natural selection pressure on cognitive mechanisms. This observation strengthens our main argument. Social learning mechanisms are unlikely to be faithful enough to explain cultural stability because they are generally selected not for high fidelity but for generalisation and adjustment to the individual’s needs, capacities and situation.

Imitation explains the propagation, not the stability of animal culture

pdf icon Claidière, N. and D. Sperber (2010). “Imitation explains the propagation, not the stability of animal culture.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277(1681): 651-659.

For acquired behaviour to count as cultural, two conditions must be met: it must propagate in a social group, and it must remain stable in the process of propagation. It is commonly claimed that imitation is the mechanism that explains both the spread of animal culture and its persistence. We review the literature on transmission chain studies in chimpanzees and other animals. We use a formal model to argue, that imitation, which may well play a major role in the propagation of animal culture, cannot be considered faithful enough to explain its stability. We show that adding to the capacity for imitation a relatively strong conformist tendency of the kind suggested by Boyd and Richerson is relevant but unlikely to be sufficient. We consider the contribution that other psychological or ecological factors might make to the persistence of animal culture observed in the wild.

Defining and explaining culture

Download PDFDefining and explaining culture. Comments on Boyd and Richerson Not by genes alone. Dan Sperber and Nicolas Claidière. Biology and Philosophy 2008 23(2): 283-292.

We argue that there is a continuum of cases without any demarcation between more individual and more cultural information, and that therefore “culture” should be viewed as a property that human mental representations and practices exhibit to a varying degree rather than as a type or a subclass of these representations and practices (or of “information”). We discuss the relative role of preservative and constructive processes in transmission. We suggest a revision of Richerson and Boyd’s classification of the forces of cultural evolution.

The role of attraction in cultural evolution

Download PDFThe role of attraction in cultural evolution. Nicolas Claidière and Dan Sperber. Journal of Cognition and Culture (2007) 7: 89-111.

A critique of: On Modeling Cognition and Culture: Why cultural evolution does not require replication of representations. Joseph Henrich and Robert Boyd, Journal of Cognition and Culture, Volume 2, Number 2, 2002 , pp. 87-112

Henrich and Boyd (2002) were the first to propose a formal model of the role of attraction in cultural evolution. They came to the surprising conclusion that, when both attraction and selection are at work, final outcomes are determined by selection alone. This result is based on a determistic view of cultural attraction, different from the probabilistic view introduced in Sperber (1996). We defend this probabilistic view, show how to model it, and argue that, when both attraction and selection are at work, both affect final outcomes.

Why modelling cultural evolution is still such a challenge

Download PDFWhy Modeling Cultural Evolution Is Still Such a Challenge. Dan Sperber and Nicolas Claidière. Biological Theory 2006 1(1): 20-22.

The idea that cultural evolution exhibits variation, competition, and inheritance and therefore can be studied by adjusting the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is an attractive one. It has been argued by a number of authors (e.g., Campbell 1960; Monod 1970; Dawkins 1976; Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985; Durham 1991; Aunger 2002; Mesoudi et al. 2004) and pursued in a variety of ways, some (Dawkins and memeticists) staying close to the Darwinian model, others (e.g., Boyd, Richerson, and their collaborators) being more innovative. We agree that there are relevant analogies between biological and cultural evolution and, in particular, that cultural items do exhibit variation, competition, and cumulative modification. On the other hand, we believe that a proper understanding of the mechanisms of cultural propagation drawing on the work of cognitive and social scientists (see Sperber and Hirschfeld 1999 for a review) contradicts the idea that culture exhibits inheritance in the strict sense needed for the theory of evolution by natural selection to apply straightforwardly to it. If so, it will take more than adjusting the Darwinian model to be faithful to the Darwinian inspiration.