Category Archives: cultural transmission

Mapping Culture

thumbnail view of the soda vs. pop study Despite the mobility and “small world” social connectivity people living in modern culture, regional difference in culture do seem to persist on both the nation and neighborhood levels. The Soda vs. Pop map may have been created almost as a joke, but seems to reveal very real regional divisions in word uses. Obviously, terms for carbonated drinks may not be tightly correlated with other cultural traits, but it is an intriguing image — and quite a relief after the deluge of red-state blue-state political maps based on voting districts.
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Culture and Social Transmission in Hominids and Non-Humans

“Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
-Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871)

One of the things which initially prompted me to do research on information transmission and culture was the question of the relationship between genes and culture. I was in an evolution class and doing reading on dynamical systems at the same time. So the question wasn’t so much the near cliché of Nature vs. Nurture, but more how the cultural and genetic influences might play out as a developmental system for generating an individual’s phenotype. There seems to be an odd asymmetry in the evolutionary literature. The mathematical framework for describing the changes in population gene frequencies brought about by differential selection on organisms is very well developed. Many of the implications of the powerful concepts of genetic evolution and fitness lead to explanations of certain social phenomena which are both fascinating and persuasive (kin selection and altruism, for example). But it seems that in many evolutionary models surprisingly little attention is paid to the potential impact of cultural transmission in determining some aspects of the “behavioral phenotype.”

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Adaptation and Models of Cultural Transmission

One of the crucial tools of modern evolutionary thinking is the notion that it is not only necessary to think about how a particular trait or relationship might be beneficial to its holder now, but also what circumstances were required for it to have become an adaptive variation in the first place. It is also essential to consider what structural factors must remain present to keep a trait from being removed from a population – is the behavior an evolutionarily stable strategy, or one which is subject to invasion by more “exploitive” traits? In this context, then, what are the biological-fitness enhancing values of “proto-culture” or communication which might have encouraged its emergence in early humans? Clearly this question is closely related to, and dependent upon, the adaptive value of cognition, consciousness, and communication. Is the continued existence of cultural behaviors which seem biologically maladaptive simply an unavoidable consequence of having big brains and jabbering mouths? Or are there group selection benefits? Are cultural behaviors subject to the same constraints of biological fitness, or do they reside in some other selective regime?

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Humans, Bias, and Communication Phenomena

Even if the specifics of the processes of coding meaning and information in intentional (or unintentional) communication are not fully understood, some of the results may be visible on a social level. If individuals have exchanged information, there might be a convergence in the meanings they associate with certain signs or actions. There my be an increased tendency to see things from each other’s perspective. Through conversation they establish a common context, a dictionary of shared words, and a collection of common connotations and references which grows with each interaction. In Eco’s terms, the “semantic trees” exchange elements; the possible meanings attached to the symbolic referents they employ become more similar. In a sense, a micro-language is developed, a subculture between the interactants, a set of expectations and conventions. If it were possible to attach some metric to the degree of meaning convergence, this might be a usable measure of information transfer.

Fig. 7 Diagram shows a summary of differences in mean semantic loadings of terms for English (star) and Japanese (circle) speakers. In this spatial representation, emotion terms that are judged as more similar (by a method similar to Osgood’s) are closer to each other than terms that are judged less similar. The dimensions of the diagram are from a Principal Component Analysis. Dimension 1 appears to correspond to what Osgood referred to as the Evaluative Factor (good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, positive-negative) and Dimension 2 appears related to his Activity Factor (fast-slow, active-passive, excitable-calm). (copied without permission form Romney et. al. 1999)

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