Cultural Evolution

Coordinator: Emanuele Serrelli


The Cultural Evolution Programme has launched a research project on "THE DIFFUSION OF CULTURAL TRAITS"


Is it legitimate to talk about "cultural traits"? Is it possible to build models of their diffusion, and are they explanatory or useful? Are there differences and peculiarities in various aspects of culture that are studied by different disciplines? By cultural trait we can provisionally intend any trait whose production in individuals depends to some extent on social learning. For example, famous and foundational models of "cultural evolution" such as those by Cavalli Sforza and Feldman (1973, 1981), but also the contemporary models by Richerson, Boyd and colleagues, are actually models of the diffusion of socially transmitted, discrete traits. The idea of diffusion is also present in the tradition of cultural anthropology (although probably with a controversial status). This is remarkable for our interdisciplinary research because cultural anthropology is, on the one hand, the elective field whose object of study is culture, and, on the other hand, tendentially hostile to any idea presented under the label of "cultural evolution". To be clear, we do not think to cultural trait diffusion as an exhaustive theory of culture and cultural change. We rather believe that the diffusion of cultural traits can be ground for a large interdisciplinary encounter, at least (but not limited to) including evolutionary modeling, anthropology, linguistics, musicology, economics, geography, archaeology, but also biology and computer science, information theory. Common epistemological problems can be declined and addressed, such as the delimitation of traits and groups, or the factors influencing diffusion; a particularly interesting issue is how cultural traits are modified through their diffusion, a phenomenon which includes what is commonly called "lamarckian evolution" at the level of the individuals (i.e., the heritability of individually-achieved innovations). In this multidisciplinary context, evolutionary models can be regarded as useful in that they offer manipulable prospective histories, which can in turn be employed as guidelines for restrospective reconstructions in other fields. Some fields may get cross-cut attention: geography is an example, since one of the key points of cultural diffusion is the idea that traits travel in space. A remarkable theme, however, is the existence of other spaces (e.g., the social space, the cyberspace and so on) where distance is measured in ways that are equally or more important for cultural diffusion.

Programmed events will appear on CISEPS homepage

Some examples:
- Monday, March 12, h 14:30 - Stefano Zenni - Storia del jazz. Una prospettiva globale
- Thursday, April 12, 2012, h 12 - Mauro Van Aken, Ivan Bargna - Seminar in cultural anthropology, title tbd
- Thursday, May 10, h 12 - Nathalie Gontier - Cultural evolution models and the Extended Synthesis: how symbiogenesis and punctuated equilibria theory can be universalized and implemented in the study of cultural transmission
- June 25-26, 2012 - SocietĂ  di Linguistica Italiana Interannual Conference - On the origin of language and historical-natural languages: a confrontation between linguists and non-linguists

Area description

Constituted by economists and philosophers of biology, in collaboration with biological evolution experts who are interested in culture, our group assesses the state-of-the-art of debates on cultural evolution in their three respective fields, making them interact and giving an overall view of cultural evolution in economics, philosophy, and evolution. Beginning with the basic question on the meaning to be attributed to the term "culture".
Taking move from the introduction of models by Cavalli Sforza and Feldman (1973, 1981) in economic theory (Bowles 1998, Bisin & Verdier 2000, 2001) the group looks for novelties that were introduced in this passage, and also for those that were left out and need reappraisal. The opportunity to enrich such models with contributions from other research traditions, such as the theory of evolutionary games (e.g. Weibull 1997), is evaluated.
The group also takes into consideration recent critical positions in evolutionary biology that see population genetics models (just those that inspired Cavalli Sforza and Feldman) as insufficient for explaining the evolutionary process, demanding the integration of such phenomena as development, plasticity, multi-level selection, and macroevolution in an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (e.g. Pigliucci & Muller 2010).
Finally, the strong interdisciplinarity of group and research topic allows a significant epistemological analysis of the use of models in scientific research. 

Diary of activities in the academic year 2010/2011

The proposal of an "extended evolutionary synthesis" was illustrated and discussed in the workshop "Perspectives on the evolution of evolutionary theory: towards an Extended Synthesis?", December 14, 2010. Keynote speaker was Gerd B. MĂĽller (Department of Theoretical Biology, University of Vienna), and discussants were zoologists Giuseppe Fusco and Maurizio Casiraghi. CISEPS economist Luigino Bruni represented the strong interdisciplinary commitment of this Research Area, developing comparisons, relationships and implications between biological and economic theory. Many interesting themes emerged during the workshop. They are fully available in online videorecordings and in the proceedings (in English) that are being worked out in final form.

On March 3, Francesco Cassata (then University of Turin), held the seminar "A transdisciplinary perspective on economic complexity: Marshall's problem revisited". Cassata historically described the moment of emergence of Modern economy, economics, biology, psychology mechanization as a complex “cultural bigbang” with similar and related (moreover, undistinguished) questions and intermingled methods. Many of those problems are still with us. In particular, "Marshall's problem" consists in finding a way to integrate physics and biology into economics in order to represent a complex economic world.

Technological evolution and innovation were at issue in the CISEPS seminar by Giuseppe Carignani (University of Udine), "Evolutionary chimeras: towards a new model of technological innovation", on April 14. The seminar addressed the complex analogy between biological and technological evolution, mostly through microhistorical engineering events, focusing on well known evolutionary phenomena, in particular on exaptation, modularity, analogy and homology. Carignani outlined interesting open research questions, and expressed the idea that the contribution of social sciences complementing economics, engineering and biology could drive the analogy towards a new theory of artificial form.

On May 6, with the occasion of the CISEPS Annual Lecture and General Meeting, Luca Cavalli Sforza (emeritus, Stanford University) talked about "Critical periods of human evolution: interdisciplinarity helps for understanding", and Marcus Feldman (Stanford University) "On Models of Social Transmission: Rates of Evolution and Patterns of Diversity". The Lecture were well-attended and an interesting debate followed. All is videorecorded and available on DVD, with the intention of uploading on "unibicocca" Youtube channel.

The general meeting featured the presentation of a working paper by Fabrizio Panebianco and Emanuele Serrelli, "An evolutionary niche construction model with reaction norms". Niche construction is the topic chosen from the pool of new problems to evolutionary modeling brought forth in the "extended synthesis" literature, and is a promising direction towards relating cultural and biological evolutionary models. An updated version of the paper, "An evolutionary niche construction model with phenotypic plasticity", has been presented at the Feldman Lab, Stanford University, on August 5, and is being developed into a full paper for publication.