ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Cultural evolution: here and now
Location Palatine - PCL050
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 1


  • Alberto Acerbi (Eindhoven University of Technology) email
  • Olivier Morin email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

"Cultural evolution" (a by-word for naturalistic and quantitative approaches to culture) is readily seen either as anthropology's bright theoretical horizon, or as a nebulous threat. This panel aims to show how it is put to work on specific problems—put to use, in short, rather than invoked.

Long Abstract

While the resurgence of interest for evolutionary (or, more broadly, naturalistic) approaches to culture is unquestionable, cultural evolution continues to represent a marginal sub-field of anthropology. Arguments in favor or against naturalistic and quantitative approaches to culture are often framed, from both sides, as major theoretical issues (such as reification, holism, or reductionism). Raising the stakes in such a fashion may not be, however, the best way to proceed. Few cultural evolutionists have been moved by charges of reductionism, and many socio-cultural anthropologists would rightly resent the accusation of lacking "scientificity". If cultural evolutionists want to be taken seriously by the broader anthropological community, they need to show that quantitative and naturalistic approaches to culture are not a fluke, and have something to contribute to social science, beyond a connection with biology. We invite researchers of a naturalistic or quantitative bent to focus on specific problems that their approach helps solving, and to explicitly show how they complement to, or differ from, standard anthropological knowledge. The precise subjects are left open, but specific topics may include:

- The applicability of models and methods from biology (e.g. phylogenetics, population genetics) to culture;

- How life-history theory helps us understand patterns of cooperation or demographic change;

- Theoretical differences between cultural evolution, niche construction and cultural attraction;

- Long-term changes in lexicon or literature, as uncovered by new quantitative methods;

- Comparative studies of social learning in humans and other primates;

- The relationship between anthropology and cognitive psychology.

The challenge is to demonstrate that cultural evolution is not a promising (or misunderstood) new direction, but it is contributing to anthropology, here and now.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The spread of steelpans: a cognitive/naturalistic analysis of scale representations

Author: Aurélie Helmlinger  email

Short Abstract

The very rapid spread of steelbands, since their invention has motivated a large scale organological study. Which instruments, are adopted? A study of the variety of the original settings of the musical scale has been undertaken, aiming to an adaptation of phylogenetic approach to organology.

Long Abstract

A remarquable aspect of naturalistic an cognitive paradigm in anthropology is probably its potential in terms of causal understanding of the culture, in place of taking the culture as explanation (Atran 2003: 137). Beyond an access to local mental representations, anthropology can, through a cognitive and naturalistic approach allow to build explanations of the observations (Sperber 1996, Boyer 2001, Atran 2004, Morin 2011).

In ethnomusicology, such an approach can be fruitfully applied to the study of performance. Trinidad and Tobago steelbands, for instance, have been well studied in terms of social and political history. But their very rapid spread −they hit around 50 countries since since their invention in the 1940s− needs a serious analysis. I've shown that their organological particularities advantanges the player's memory (Helmlinger 2012), and can probably explain their success.

But this spread is also raising other co-related questions: which steelpans, the steelbands's main instruments, are adopted? One of the most interesting aspects of steelpans is their very original and rich ergonomy: they are a whole family of instruments, only partially standardized. Acoustical constraints, combined with the concave shape of the playing surfaces and the number of oil drums used for one instrument (from 1 to 12), creates a large variety of very original note layout settings. They create therefore a variety of "public representations" of the musical scale on 2 to 3 dimensions patterns.

A large scale study of the spread of the steelpan has been undertaken, aiming to an adaptation of phylogenetic approach to organology.

Social learning and traditions in contemporary and ancestral ape cultures

Author: Andrew Whiten (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

Comparative studies of living primates offer a unique route to the reconstruction of the ancient foundations of the human capacity for culture. I illustrate my systematic comparative analyses with key findings from our recent research concerning primate social learning and cultural transmission

Long Abstract

From the Stone Age onwards we have an impressive material record of human cultural evolution, but to reconstruct the social learning processes that underwrote this and the more ancient ancestral foundations of culture we can fortunately call on the directly observable behaviour of other primates. Recent years have provided a wealth of insights through our observational and experimental discoveries. This paper presents a systematic scheme that facilitates multiple comparisons of aspects of culture across living and ancestral species, and that has recently been embraced within cultural anthropology (Jordan 2015*). Illustrating this scheme I highlight key findings from our recent work on social learning and traditions in human and non-human apes. Analysis focuses on three main elements, each further divided into sub-topics. The first element focuses on the patterning of traditions across time and space, including commonalities between human and non-human apes in the existence of local cultures defined by multiple traditions. Like other commonalities identified in these analyses, such patterning is thus inferred to have characterized the scope of culture in our shared ancestors. Differences are also identified, notably in cumulative cultural evolution, rare outwith our own species but spectacular within it. Such differences and commonalities are likewise identified in the second and third elements, that focus in turn on the processes available for cultural transmission, such as imitation and teaching, and the content of cultural variations, such as technology and social customs. *Jordan, P. (2015). Technology as Human Social Tradition: Cultural Transmission among Hunter-Gatherers. Univ. California Press.

Aspects of an anthropological theory of cultural evolution: the case of religious ritual

Author: Carles Salazar (Universitat de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the merits and shortcomings of two theories of cultural evolution: cultural group selection and cultural epidemiology, and I will use the example of religious ritual as an apt illustration of the main theoretical claims of the paper.

Long Abstract

Apparently useless behaviours, religious rituals can be approached from two radically different points of view. Following the old Durkheimian insights, they can be seen as fulfilling some social function beneficial to the group that outstrips the individual costs entailed in their performance or, conversely, they can be considered as an instance of a viral meme that parasitizes human minds by making them generate the appropriate behaviours suitable for its reproduction at the expense of its hosts. Modern cultural evolutionist theories provide interesting developments and corrections to those two approaches. Durkheimian functionalism can be aptly rephrased in cultural group selection terms, and cultural epidemiology provides apposite amendments to the memetic theory of cultural reproduction. And yet there are important theoretical difficulties in both theories. Cultural evolution means that cultures change through time in a non-random fashion. But it is unclear how these changes should be understood in the long term: Do they provide selective advantages to the social groups wherein those cultural changes take place? Or do they merely increase the reproduction of the cultures themselves, maybe at the expense of the individuals who uphold them? Two main points I would like to make in this paper, first, that cultural group selection theory cannot solve the ambivalences inherent in the concept of cultural group and, secondly, that cultural epidemiology, though immune to some of the problems raised by the cultural group selection approach, needs a more precise definition of its key conceptual tool, the concept of 'cultural attractor'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.