Cultural Evolution Approach

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By Alberto Acerbi:

"Cultural evolution is a relatively recent scientific field that studies human and, partly, non-human cultural behavior (see Mesoudi, 2015, for a recent review). Cultural behavior is generally defined as behavior transmitted through social learning, as opposed to individual learning or genetic inheritance (Henrich and McElreath, 2003). The distinction between cultural and non-cultural behavior is not a sharp one (Morin, 2015) but it works quite well for practical purposes. Cultural evolutionists study things such as the evolution of uniquely human forms of cooperation (Boyd and Richerson, 2009; Turchin et al., 2013), indigenous knowledge of plants' properties (Reyes-Garcia et al., 2008), the cultural evolution of language (Tamariz et al., 2014; Kirby et al., 2015), the spread of fashions in contemporary culture, using cases like baby names (Bentley et al., 2004) or dog breeds (Ghirlanda et al., 2013, 2014), or how ineffective medical treatments can nonetheless be successful (Tanaka et al., 2009; de Barra et al., 2014; Miton et al., 2015), just to give a few examples. Similarly, a wide range of methodologies are used, including simulation and mathematical models (Acerbi et al., 2009; Kempe et al., 2014; Smaldino and McElreath, 2016), laboratory experiments (Caldwell and Smith, 2012; Derex and Boyd, 2015; Muthukrishna et al., 2015; Schillinger et al., 2016), phylogenetic analysis (Fortunato and Jordan, 2010; Tehrani, 2013; Watts et al., 2015), ethnographic research (Mathew and Boyd, 2014; Colleran and Mace, 2015), and comparative studies of social learning in humans and other animals (Whiten et al., 2009; Dean et al., 2012; Reindl et al., 2016).

What brings together all these researches is, more than a unitary view about how culture should be considered an evolutionary process (see Claidière et al., 2014; Acerbi and Mesoudi, 2015; Lewens, 2015, for a general discussion), a strong commitment to provide explanations that are naturalistic and quantitative, as well as grounded in cognitive science and evolutionary theory. At the minimum, all cultural evolutionists share the idea that a cultural phenomenon is a population-level aggregate of individual-level interactions and that, to explain the former, one needs to take seriously the latter. Accordingly, the works of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) are considered as establishing modern cultural evolution. These works consisted in mathematical models, inspired by population genetics, developing formalisms to link micro-processes of transmission—like different “directions” of transmission, e.g., from parents to offsprings, between peers, etc. or different transmission biases, see below—to macro-processes of cultural change—like the diffusion dynamics of cultural traits. In parallel, cognitive anthropologists such as Sperber (1985, 1996) started to consider in depth the role of individual cognition in the explanation of cultural patterns, focusing on the fact that the success of some widespread beliefs may depend on them being generally attractive to human minds (I will discuss some examples in the next sections).

The psychology of digital media, in particular online activities (sometimes described as “cyberpsychology” Attrill, 2015) is a growing field (see e.g., Wallace, 2001; Suler, 2015). A cultural evolution approach adds, as mentioned, an explicit interest for the micro-macro link, in other words, for how individual-level properties (e.g., psychological) influence population-level dynamics and vice versa. In addition, the naturalistic and quantitative framework provided by cultural evolution seems perfectly suited for the study of contemporary digital media. One of the opportunities that the widespread diffusion of digital media offers to social sciences is the availability of vast amounts of data on human behavior (Lazer et al., 2009). While the understanding offered by ethnographic (e.g., Boyd, 2014) or critical-theory-inspired (e.g., Fuchs, 2014) perspectives remain clearly important, the cultural evolution approach is in a better position to make sense also of the quantitative data that digital media usage quasi-automatically produces. On the other side, computer scientists and physicists had promptly made use of these data to study the diffusion of information in digital social networks (see Weng et al., 2012; Adamic et al., 2014; Cooney et al., 2016; Del Vicario et al., 2016, for few recent examples). These works importantly include quantitative analysis and models, and they can offer valuable insights on online activity. However, the perspective of cultural evolution can complement this thread of research by providing a refined view of the micro-processes of transmission and of the psychological motivations underpinning them.

To sum up, cultural evolution may offer a privileged perspective to look at digital media, including both a sophisticated view of human behavior and a methodological attitude to modeling and quantitative analysis. In the next sections I will try to substantiate this claim with some examples of investigations that a cultural evolution approach suggests." (