How Traditions Live and Die (Foundations of Human Interaction)
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Of all the things we do and say, most will never be repeated or reproduced. Once in a while, however, an idea or a practice generates a chain of transmission that covers more distance through space and time than any individual person ever could. What makes such transmission chains possible? For two centuries, the dominant view (from psychology to anthropology) was that humans owe their cultural prosperity to their powers of imitation. In this view, modern cultures exist because the people who carry them are gifted at remembering, storing and reproducing information. How Traditions Live and Die proposes an alternative to this standard view. What makes traditions live is not a general-purpose imitation capacity. Cultural transmission is partial, selective, often unfaithful. Some traditions live on in spite of this, because they tap into widespread and basic cognitive preferences. These attractive traditions spread, not by being better retained or more accurately transferred, but because they are transmitted over and over. This theory is used to shed light on various puzzles of cultural change (from the distribution of bird songs to the staying power of children's rhymes) and to explain the special relation that links the human species to its cultures. Morin combines recent work in cognitive anthropology with new advances in quantitative cultural history, to map and predict the diffusion of traditions. This book is both an introduction and an accessible alternative to contemporary theories of cultural evolution.
and in spite of the great heterogeneity of the questions asked, informants in these studies overwhelmingly pointed to one of their parents. Yet these studies did not quite manage to create a consensus. There is no disagreement about the fact that vertical transmission (along genealogical lines in particular) contributes to cultural stability everywhere. Doubters question two things, though: whether vertical transmission is similarly important in all societies (Lancy 1996; MacDonald 2007; Hewlett
ostensive communication does not need a well-defined institutional context to take place, cultural transmission is not attached to formal settings. As Atran and Sperber put it: In most human societies children become competent adults without the help of institutionalized teaching: there are no schools, no syllabus, no appointed teachers. Parents and other elders don’t see their duty towards children as primarily one of education. They may, over the years, end up spending some time instructing the
read about flexible imitation is inspired by that theory. (I do not, however, aim to take on board all the axioms of rational agent theory; flexible imitators are simply prudent: they do not imitate any costly behavior without a motive.) The theory of cascades is most famous for showing that, even in a group of well-informed rational agents, practices may spread that everyone personally knows to be bad, because everyone thinks that everyone else knows better. These are called negative
formulas, rely on sophisticated memorization techniques to be passed on. Some of these techniques resemble writing in many respects (Severi 2007). Such traditions that rely on sophisticated tools for their transmission will not be our primary focus here. Many Ways to Proliferate, Several Types of Diffusion Chains Better accessibility stabilizes diffusion chains in two ways. First, in accessible populations, chains link several points separated by a lot of space, or a lot of time, and thus cross
the degree of overlap between generations. Let us consider, for simplicity’s sake, a population that neither grows nor shrinks: departures (which can be thought of as equivalent to deaths) are constantly compensated by new arrivals (which could be births). The rate at which such a population is renewed depends on the amount of time its members stay in it. The shorter the duration of their stay, the more rapid the rate of turnover. A fast rate of turnover means it takes less time to renew the