The Role of Stability in Cultural Evolution: Innovation and Conformity in Implicit Knowledge Discovery

  • Joanna J. BrysonEmail author
Part of the Studies in the Philosophy of Sociality book series (SIPS, volume 3)


One of the defining traits of humanity is our capacity for accumulating innovations. While many authors focus on the innovation process itself, Evolutionary Anthropology has become more interested in the accumulation part of this uniqueness, and in particularly whether something like an evolutionary account of cultural acquisition can explain it. In this chapter I discuss the role and sources of innovation in generating culture, and also the role of norms in preserving it. I demonstrate through two sets of simulation experiments a model of cultural evolution exploring the problem of cultural stability and change. The first models the impact of noisy transmission and modularity on cultural stability. The second looks at the impact on cultural change if a biologically-advantageous variant emerges of a single cultural trait.


Cultural Evolution Action Error Cultural Transmission Original Culture Perception Error 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research was inspired by an informal talk by Dan Sperber in the Spring of 2008 at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, where I was supported by the institute as the Hans Przibram Fellow with sabbatical assistance from the University of Bath. Thanks to Christophe Heintz for his discussion and comments on the original version of this paper, which was also presented to The Fall AAAI Symposium on Adaptive Agents in Cultural Contexts (AACC’08), and appeared in its informal proceedings (A. Davis and J. Ludwig, eds). Thanks to that symposium also for their comments. Effort on completing the final version was sponsored by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Material Command, USAF, under grant number FA8655-10-1-3050.


  1. Aunger, R., editor (2000). Darwinizing culture: The status of memetics as a science. Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  2. Baldwin, J. M. (1896). A new factor in evolution. The American Naturalist, 30:441–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bates, E. (1999). Plasticity, localization and language development. In Broman, S. and Fletcher, J. M., editors, The changing nervous system: Neurobehavioral consequences of early brain disorders, pages 214–253. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Best, M. L. (1999). How culture can guide evolution: An inquiry into gene/meme enhancement and opposition. Adaptive Behavior, 7(3/4):289–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bishop, C. M. (2006). Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning. Springer, London.Google Scholar
  6. Borenstein, E. and Krakauer, D. C. (2008). An end to endless forms: Epistasis, phenotype distribution bias, and non-uniform evolution. PLoS Computational Biology, 4(10):e1000202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brooks, R. A. (1990). Elephants don’t play chess. In Maes, P., editor, Designing Autonomous Agents: Theory and Practice from Biology to Engineering and Back, pages 3–15. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  8. Brooks, R. A. (1991). Intelligence without representation. Artificial Intelligence, 47(1–3):139–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bryson, J. J. (2000). Making modularity work: Combining memory systems and intelligent processes in a dialog agent. In Sloman, A., editor, AISB’00 Symposium on Designing a Functioning Mind, pages 21–30.Google Scholar
  10. Bryson, J. J. (2001). Intelligence by Design: Principles of Modularity and Coordination for Engineering Complex Adaptive Agents. PhD thesis, MIT, Department of EECS, Cambridge, MA. AI Technical Report 2001–003.Google Scholar
  11. Bryson, J. J. (2008). Embodiment versus memetics. Mind & Society, 7(1):77–94.Google Scholar
  12. Bryson, J. J. (2009). Representations underlying social learning and cultural evolution. Interaction Studies, 10(1):77–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bryson, J. J. (2010). Cultural ratcheting results primarily from semantic compression. In Smith, A. D. M., Schouwstra, M., de Boer, B., and Smith, K., editors, The Evolution of Language 8, pages 50–57, Utrecht.Google Scholar
  14. Bryson, J. J., Ando, Y., and Lehmann, H. (2007). Agent-based models as scientific methodology: A case study analysing primate social behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B — Biology, 362(1485):1685–1698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Carlson, N. R. (2000). Physiology of Behavior. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, seventh edition.Google Scholar
  16. Carruthers, P. (2005). The case for massively modular models of mind. In Stainton, R., editor, Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science, pages 205–225. Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  17. Castro, L., Medina, A., and Toro, M. A. (2004). Hominid cultural transmission and the evolution of language. Biology and Philosophy, 19(5):721–737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Clark, A. E. and Kashima, Y. (2007). Stereotypes help people connect with others in the community: A situated functional analysis of the stereotype consistency bias in communication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6):1028–1039.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Darian-Smith, E. (2002). Beating the bounds: Law, identity and territory in the New Europe. In Greenhouse, C., Warren, K., and Merz, E., editors, Ethnography in Unstable Places, pages 249–275. Duke University Press, Raleigh, NC.Google Scholar
  20. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Dennett, D. C. (1995). Intuition pumps. In Brockman, J., editor, The Third Culture, pages 181–197. Simon & Schuster, New York.Google Scholar
  22. Dornhaus, A. and Franks, N. R. (2008). Individual and collective cognition in ants and other insects (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News, 11:215–226.Google Scholar
  23. Fitch, W. T. (2005). The evolution of language: A comparative review. Biology and Philosophy, 20(2–3):193–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fodor, J. A. (1983). The Modularity of Mind. Bradford Books. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  25. Franks, N. R. and Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants. Nature, 439(7073):153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Harnad, S. (1987). Categorial perception: A critical overview. In Harnad, S., editor, Categorial perception: The groundwork of perception. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Hinton, G. E. and Nowlan, S. J. (1987). How learning can guide evolution. Complex Systems, 1:495–502.Google Scholar
  28. Horswill, I. D. (1993). Specialization of Perceptual Processes. PhD thesis, MIT, Department of EECS, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  29. Huber, L., Range, F., Voelkl, B., Szucsich, A., Virányi, Z., and Miklosi, A. (2009). The evolution of imitation: What do the capacities of non-human animals tell us about the mechanisms of imitation? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B — Biology, 364(1485):2299–2309.Google Scholar
  30. Kenward, B., Rutz, C., Weir, A. A. S., and Kacelnik, A. (2006). Development of tool use in New Caledonian crows: Inherited action patterns and social influences. Animal Behaviour, 72(6):1329–1343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Schuster, New York.Google Scholar
  32. O’Brien, M. J. and Shennan, S. J. (2009). Innovation in cultural systems: Contributions from evolutionary anthropology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Perry, S. and Manson, J. H. (2003). Traditions in monkeys. Evolutionary Anthropology, 12:71–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rao, R. P. N. (1999). An optimal estimation approach to visual perception and learning. Vision Research, 39(11):1963–1989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Richerson, P. J. and Boyd, R. (2005). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University Of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  36. Samuels, R. (1998). Evolutionary psychology and the massive modularity hypothesis. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 49(4):575–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sperber, D. and Hirschfeld, L. (2006). Culture and modularity. In Carruthers, P., Laurence, S., and Stich, S., editors, The Innate Mind: Culture and Cognition, volume 2, pages 149–164. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Sperber, D. and Hirschfeld, L. A. (2004). The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1):40–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Steadman, L. and Palmer, C. (1997). Myths as instructions from ancestors: The example of Oedipus. Zygon, 32(3):341–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Steels, L. and Belpaeme, T. (2005). Coordinating perceptually grounded categories through language: A case study for colour. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(4):469–489.Google Scholar
  41. Steels, L. and Kaplan, F. (1999). Bootstrapping grounded word semantics. In Briscoe, T., editor, Linguistic Evolution Through Language Acquisition: Formal and Computational Models. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  43. van Schaik, C. P., Ancrenaz, M., Borgen, G., Galdikas, B., Knott, C. D., Singleton, I., Suzuki, A., Utami, S. S., and Merrill, M. (2003). Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture. Science, 299(5603):102–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Waxman, S. R. and Markow, D. B. (1995). Words as invitations to form categories: Evidence from 12- to 13-month-old infants. Cognitive Psychology, 29(3):257–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Whitehouse, H. (2002). Modes of religiosity: Towards a cognitive explanation of the sociopolitical dynamics of religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 14(3–4):293–315.Google Scholar
  46. Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C. E. G., Wrangham, R. W., and Boesch, C. (1999). Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature, 399:682–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Whiten, A. and Ham, R. (1992). On the nature and evolution of imitation in the animal kingdom: Reappraisal of a century of research. Advances in the Study of Behaviour, 21:239–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Whiten, A. and van Schaik, C. P. (2007). The evolution of animal ‘cultures’ and social intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B — Biology, 362(1480):603–620.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wilensky, U. (2011). NetLogo. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University.
  50. Wilkinson, A., Kuenstner, K., Mueller, J., and Huber, L. (2010). Social learning in a non-social reptile (geochelone carbonaria). Biology Letters, 6(5):614–616.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wimsatt, W. C. (2009). Memetics does not provide a useful way of understanding cultural evolution. In Ayala, F. J. and Arp, R., editors, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology, pages 273–292. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wolpert, D. H. (1996a). The existence of a priori distinctions between learning algorithms. Neural Computation, 8(7):1391–1420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wolpert, D. H. (1996b). The lack of a priori distinctions between learning algorithms. Neural Computation, 8(7):1341–1390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wood, M. A. (2008). An Agent-Independent Task Learning Framework. PhD thesis, Department of Computer Science, University of Bath, United Kingdom.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of BathBathUK

Personalised recommendations