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, 367 (1599), 2171-80

Transmission Fidelity Is the Key to the Build-Up of Cumulative Culture

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Transmission Fidelity Is the Key to the Build-Up of Cumulative Culture

Hannah M Lewis et al. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci.

Abstract

Many animals have socially transmitted behavioural traditions, but human culture appears unique in that it is cumulative, i.e. human cultural traits increase in diversity and complexity over time. It is often suggested that high-fidelity cultural transmission is necessary for cumulative culture to occur through refinement, a process known as 'ratcheting', but this hypothesis has never been formally evaluated. We discuss processes of information transmission and loss of traits from a cognitive viewpoint alongside other cultural processes of novel invention (generation of entirely new traits), modification (refinement of existing traits) and combination (bringing together two established traits to generate a new trait). We develop a simple cultural transmission model that does not assume major evolutionary changes (e.g. in brain architecture) and show that small changes in the fidelity with which information is passed between individuals can lead to cumulative culture. In comparison, modification and combination have a lesser influence on, and novel invention appears unimportant to, the ratcheting process. Our findings support the idea that high-fidelity transmission is the key driver of human cumulative culture, and that progress in cumulative culture depends more on trait combination than novel invention or trait modification.

Figures

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
The distributions of PC1 scores for increasing values of the rate parameters of the model. Data are pooled across all values of the other parameters. Each parameter combination was simulated 10 times, resulting in different numbers of replicates per individual parameter value (see electronic supplementary material, table A1).
Figure 2.
Figure 2.
The distributions of the time-averaged: (a) number of cultural traits within the population, (b) number of lineages within the population, (c) mean trait complexity and (d) mean lineage complexity. Time averages (means) calculated for each cultural group across the final 1000 events.
Figure 3.
Figure 3.
The distribution of the time-averaged: (a) minimum trait utility, (b) mean trait utility and (c) maximum trait utility. Time averages (means) calculated for each cultural group across the final 1000 events.
Figure 4.
Figure 4.
Growth in the number of traits for parameters (a) ρ1 = 0.3, ρ2 = 0.1, ρ3 = 0.2, ρ4 = 0.4, (b) ρ1 = 0.1, ρ2 = 0.2, ρ3 = 0.3, ρ4 = 0.4, with time rescaled to reflect increasing number of events with an increasing number of traits. Ten independent replicate cultural groups are shown.

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