Replication and Emergence in Cultural Transmission

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20 Citations (Scopus)
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Humans are fundamentally defined by our socially transmitted, often long-lived, sophisticated cultural traits. The nature of cultural transmission is the subject of ongoing debate: while some emphasize that it is a biased, transformational process, others point out that high-fidelity transmission is required to explain the quintessentially cumulative nature of human culture. This paper integrates both views into a model that has two main components: First, actions – observable motor-behavioural patterns – are inherited with high fidelity, or replicated, when they are copied, largely independently of their normal, effective or conventional function, by naive learners. Replicative action copying is the unbiased transmission process that ensures the continuity of cultural traditions. Second, mental culture – knowledge, skills, attitudes and values – is not inherited directly or faithfully, but instead emerges, or develops, during usage, when individuals learn the associations between actions and their contexts and outcomes. Mental cultural traits remain stable over generations to the extent that they are informed by similar (replicated) motor patterns unfolding in similar environments. The arguments in support of this model rest on clear distinctions between inheritance and usage; between public-behavioural and private-mental culture; and between selection for fidelity and selection for function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-71
Number of pages25
JournalPhysics of Life Reviews
Early online date11 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


  • Cultural evolution
  • Emergence
  • Imitation
  • Inferential learning
  • Replication
  • Selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Artificial Intelligence


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