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.