How Traditions Live and Die (Foundations of Human Interaction)
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Of all the things we do and say, most will never be repeated or reproduced. Once in a while, however, an idea or a practice generates a chain of transmission that covers more distance through space and time than any individual person ever could. What makes such transmission chains possible? For two centuries, the dominant view (from psychology to anthropology) was that humans owe their cultural prosperity to their powers of imitation. In this view, modern cultures exist because the people who carry them are gifted at remembering, storing and reproducing information. How Traditions Live and Die proposes an alternative to this standard view. What makes traditions live is not a general-purpose imitation capacity. Cultural transmission is partial, selective, often unfaithful. Some traditions live on in spite of this, because they tap into widespread and basic cognitive preferences. These attractive traditions spread, not by being better retained or more accurately transferred, but because they are transmitted over and over. This theory is used to shed light on various puzzles of cultural change (from the distribution of bird songs to the staying power of children's rhymes) and to explain the special relation that links the human species to its cultures. Morin combines recent work in cognitive anthropology with new advances in quantitative cultural history, to map and predict the diffusion of traditions. This book is both an introduction and an accessible alternative to contemporary theories of cultural evolution.
group of adults sharing a homogeneous culture would always succeed in imparting it to their children. (Mead 1940, 93) The same axiom can be found in many different schools of social science. Marcel Mauss himself was not shy of cutting a long story short: “the transmission of things, practices and collective representations happens by itself ” (Mauss 1931). His view endured. In the 1990s Pascal Boyer was not being too unfair when he described the claim that cultural transmission is perfect and
samples will be small, and their exploitation, uneasy. What they see is fragments of a distributed tradition, not the kind of data that historical linguistics or quantitative sociologists can use. If they want to see the distributional face of culture, ethnographers need to refashion themselves into historians—which, of course, they are most of the time, but the dominance of fieldwork necessarily outshines these other competences. One other thing that might have contributed to pushing cultural
Social learning is a “simple heuristic”: its aim is not simply to make the right decision, but to make it at a reasonable cost (the cost being measured in processing time and brainpower). Using rough-and-ready indicators, like the number and prestige of models, can be a way of saving on these limited resources. It could be a way of solving what is often called a “cost-accuracy trade-off.” For dual inheritance theory, the existence of this trade-off implies that social learning often produces
some of them at least, know things that you do not. But let us walk on a little, and we end up on Personal Knowledge Street. Here, you know most of the restaurants through recent and direct personal experience (for the sake of this example, let us just abstract away things like food critics or crowd-sourced websites). On Personal Knowledge Street, restaurant frequentation is hard to observe (some waiters place patrons near the windows so they look more numerous) and it is a poor indicator of
transmission chains, but the exceptions actually prove the rule. In an elegant series of experiments, Tom Griffiths and his collaborators have shown that some stimuli are reproduced almost indefinitely along sequential chains. Their subjects are typically asked to learn and transmit statistical relations between variables (Kalish, Griffiths, and Lewandowsky 2007). Some are simple and intuitive, like a linear relation (when X grows bigger, Y grows bigger); others are much harder to grasp (as, for