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The Research Programme on Cultural Evolution  launches the project "The Diffusion of Cultural Traits"


 

Abstract


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.


Info and contact: cultural.traits@gmail.com

 

 

 

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