On the face of it, the stunning continuity and abundance of traditions in our species suggests that humans possess an evolved drive to imitate others—an adaptation enabling each of us to acquire our culture. Yet, human traditions could also have arisen as a by-product of communicative capacities that are neither adapted to cultural transmission per se, nor geared towards the reproduction of behaviours (or thoughts). In this view, the very same cognitive mechanisms that preserve some traditions also distort others. These transformations need not impede cultural stability: reinvention can lead to repair, or to the birth of more appealing traditions: humans transmit their culture because they fail to imitate it.
This hypothesis has been most clearly defended by a research trend known as “cultural attraction theory.” The talk will explore two of its consequences, which will be explored with data drawn from quantitative cultural history and ranging from childhood folklore to art history, from the study of writing systems to big-data analyses of literary trends.
First, cultural survival is not necessarily dependent on the number of relays that a tradition has to go through. High-fidelity replication preserves all of a model’s features, including mistakes from previous replications. If it drove cultural transmission, multiple transmission episodes should bring information loss. By contrast, if transmission is a reinvention, not a replication, then traditions may thrive on being handed down many times. Children’s games and rhymes are a case in point. Second, cultural attraction theory predicts that, because people transform what they transmit in predictable ways, we should observe protracted directional changes in cultural history—changes so regular and lasting that they cannot be explained by the influence of the leaders or majorities that dominate a given society at a given time: the steady rise of direct gaze poses in two portrait traditions (Europe and Korea) will serve as an example.