Cultural Transmission - Definitions

 Created: 24 Jun 2013  Modified: 23 Jun 2017   BibTeX Entry   RIS Citation  Print

Culture and Cultural Transmission

Culture is information that is acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language.

(Mesoudi 2011)

Culture is information capable of affecting individual’s behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.

(Richerson and Boyd 2005)

CT Models

Definition from my colloquium, that I adapted from William Harms’s Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes (Harms 2004):

Cultural transmission models describe the dynamics of the distribution of acquired behavioral traits and artifacts, with an emphasis on the role that imitation and population structure plays in shaping this dynamics.

My point in the above is to differentiate between individual-level and population-level phenomena. Our models of cultural transmission are dynamical systems, and describe changes in statistical and distributional measures given a specific set of individual-level state variables and processes.

But the focus on “imitation” is misleading, given how much of social learning is non-imitative. So a better definition might be:

Cultural transmission models describe the distribution of behavioral traits and artifacts, given their acquisition through mechanisms of social learning, within contexts that encompass spatial and social structures.

But we also want to recognize that while models of social learning always describe individual-level dynamics (or rather, individual-in-group dynamics), cultural transmission models can be pitched to model dynamics at different scales. The scale we normally think of as “microevolutionary” is really the short-term dynamics, usually within a population or set of populations. But we can think on longer time scales and larger spatial scales as well, and end up with models which are “macroevolutionary.” We tend to use the mathematics of diffusion to describe the former, and phylogenetic models relying upon graph theory to describe the latter, but these are modeling choices.

Cultural transmission models describe the distribution or history of behavioral traits and artifacts, given their acquisition through mechanisms of social learning, at a particular scale of observation.

References Cited

Harms, William F. 2004. Information and Meaning in Evolutionary Processes. Cambridge University Press.

Mesoudi, Alex. 2011. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences. University of Chicago Press.

Richerson, P.J., and R. Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press.