Publications of Mathieu Charbonneau

Understanding Cultural Fidelity

A leading idea of cultural evolutionary theory is that for human cultures to undergo evolutionary change, cultural transmission must generally serve as a high-fidelity copying process. In analogy to genetic inheritance, the high fidelity of human cultural transmission would act as a safeguard against the transformation and loss of cultural information, thus ensuring both the stability and longevity of cultural traditions. Cultural fidelity would also serve as the key difference-maker between human cumulative cultures and non-human non-cumulative traditions, explaining why only us humans, with our uniquely high-fidelity transmission capabilities, are capable of evolving and sustaining complex traditions. But what does it mean for cultural transmission to be more or less faithful? This article has two objectives. The first is to clarify the meaning and uses of the concept of cultural fidelity and to evaluate their explanatory import. I argue that cultural evolutionists use several fidelity concepts (episodic, propensity, and generalized fidelity), concepts that I will define and clarify. The second objective is to challenge the explanatory significance of a general notion of fidelity (generalized fidelity) as being both explanatorily meaningful and operationalizable. I conclude that if fidelity is to serve as an explanation of the key differences between human cumulative cultures and non-human non-cumulative traditions, then the concept will have to be redesigned and rely on different assumptions.

Cumulative culture in the laboratory: methodological and theoretical challenges

In the last decade, cultural transmission experiments (transmission chains, replacement, closed groups and seeded groups) have become important experimental tools in investigating cultural evolution. However, these methods face important challenges, especially regarding the operationalization of theoretical claims. In this review, we focus on the study of cumulative cultural evolution, the process by which traditions are gradually modified and, for technological traditions in particular, improved upon over time. We identify several mismatches between theoretical definitions of cumulative culture and their implementation in cultural transmission experiments. We argue that observed performance increase can be the result of participants learning faster in a group context rather than effectively leading to a cumulative effect. We also show that in laboratory experiments, participants are asked to complete quite simple tasks, which can undermine the evidential value of the diagnostic criterion traditionally used for cumulative culture (i.e. that cumulative culture is a process that produces solutions that no single individual could have invented on their own). We show that the use of unidimensional metrics of cumulativeness drastically curtail the variation that may be observed, which raises specific issues in the interpretation of the experimental evidence. We suggest several solutions to these mismatches (learning times, task complexity and variation) and develop the use of design spaces in experimentally investigating old and new questions about cumulative culture.

Modularity and Recombination in Technological Evolution

Cultural evolutionists typically emphasize the informational aspect of social transmission, that of the learning, stabilizing, and transformation of mental representations along cultural lineages. Social transmission also depends on the production of public displays such as utterances, behaviors, and artifacts, as these displays are what social learners learn from. However, the generative processes involved in the production of public displays are usually abstracted away in both theoretical assessments and formal models. The aim of this paper is to complement the informational view with a generative dimension, emphasizing how the production of public displays both enable and constrain the production of modular cultural recipes through the process of innovation by recombination. In order to avoid a circular understanding of cultural recombination and cultural modularity, we need to take seriously the nature and structure of the generative processes involved in the maintenance of cultural traditions. A preliminary analysis of what recombination and modularity consist of is offered. It is shown how the study of recombination and modularity depends on a finer understanding of the generative processes involved in the production phase of social transmission. Finally, it is argued that the recombination process depends on the inventive production of an interface between modules and the complex recipes in which they figure, and that such interfaces are the direct result of the generative processes involved in the production of these recipes. The analysis is supported by the case study of the transition from the Oldowan to the Early Acheulean flake detachment techniques.