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.
A comment on Ramsey G, Bastian ML, van Schaik C. Animal innovation defined and operationalized. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2007), 30:393-407
We contend that Ramsey et al’s definition of animal innovation sensu process may be partially misleading when investigating mechanisms underlying animal innovation. By excluding social learning from the ”process” of innovation, they may be reproducing a dichotomous schema that does not accurately correspond to our knowledge of the acquisition of novel behavioral variants. This gives us some reason to doubt the functional specification of the defined ”process” of innovation. Continue reading “The animal variations: When mechanisms matter in accounting for function”
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.
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.
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.