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'Cultural evolution is not just a metaphor'

Alberto Acerbi, a cognitive/evolutionary anthropologist at TU Eindhoven, explains the notion of cultural evolution and highlights its potential for Digital Humanities.

First, could you tell us something about the cultural evolution that you are studying? What it is and why it is important to study it ?

Cultural evolution is a relatively recent academic field.The first works in cultural evolution were published in the 80-es. They were mathematical approaches to the study of human cultural dynamics. In the last 5-10 years there has been a big development in cultural evolution studies, made possible by people from different disciplines.

The basic idea is that cultural dynamics can be interpreted as an evolutionary process. There are different opinions on how exactly this should be done. For some this is what they call evolutionary embeddings, the idea is that since humans are a product of evolution, and culture is a product of humans, so there are aspects of culture that are influenced by the fact that we are a product of evolutions. In this respect one looks at some evolved cognitive abilities and how they influence culture. There are what they call transmission biases, when we copy preferentially from prestigious individuals or from the majority and these are cognitive adaptations, a feature of human cognition and they influence the cultural dynamics

Probably a more radical idea is that culture is an evolutionary process in itself. That evolution is not limited to the biological domain, but actually occurs in other domains where some features can be interpreted in evolutionary terms. For instance, there is variation in cultural artefacts, and also selection process, so some artefacts are successful, others  are not. There is inheritance, as we are good imitators, so there are cultural lineages. We can say that evolutionary tools can be applied to culture.

So from this point of view, it is more than just a metaphor, right? We are actually trying to discover some laws similar to Darwinian laws.

Right. Again there is a wide array of opinions about cultural inheritance. But the idea in its most explicit form is that it is not a metaphor. There are differences between biological and cultural evolution, on this almost everybody would agree. But the same basic ingredients are present both in culture and biology. The importance of this evolutionary approach is that it empowers you with some theoretical tools to think about culture, to provide explanations -- and possibly, predictions.

But there must also be some scepticism about this? What are the limits of this approach? Do you think it will be possible to come up with a whole explanatory theory for the cultural process?

I am optimistic. This is a very personal opinion, but for me the framework of cultural evolution allows to deal with problems that were debated in anthropology for the last 50 years. The same could work for literary theory. And it can provide at least some explanations. We are only starting this process, but the tools are there, so I hope it is a question of doing more studies and making better tools. There is a lot of debate, but I think quantitative methods proved to be useful to answer specific questions. And I think the theory of cultural evolution can provide the questions.

Could you name some specific questions that interest you personally?

One thing that interests me is the role of certain factors in the success of cultural items. There are studies that explain the success of religious thinking, the idea that we find the so-called minimally counterintuitive concepts to be attractive. That is when the majority of features are intuitive and explainable and only few are not. So if you think of the images of God, it mostly resembles men, and only few things are actually divine.

That is quite bold, to try and formalize these aspects of human culture.  

Yes. But I would say literary scholars adopting the evolutionary theory could also be bolder in setting their research objectives. Say it straight: we try to find specific literary trait , we try to explain why some forms of fiction are more successful.   

Speaking of tools. You are using Google Books for your research. Obviously, this tool, impressive and powerful as it is, has certain flaws as a research instrument…

One of the things I am trying to do is to find certain long-term changes in art and culture. In my lecture I was talking about the general decrease or increase in certain types of emotions you can find in fiction or song lyrics. And of course there are problems. In my work I try to use other corpora and approach the same question from different perspectives. But i think there is a trade-off…

...between size and quality

Yes, exactly. In the prefect world you want to have everything spelled correctly and marked up perfectly. But in reality you have to choose. I have a taste for size, and i hope that quality will come through size. But i recognize the problem.

You mentioned cognitive science here, and since we are talking about culture, a product of human brain, do you think there is a need for deeper cooperation with cognitive scientists, people, who study human cognitive abilities, neurolinguists, and perhaps even with those who study the physiology of human brain?

Yes, I think that in general some more cognitive science in the study of cultural evolution would be useful. Again, it depends on the exact object of study. I am interested in cognitive attractors in folk tales, why some things are more attractive.  Cognitive science could help in this case. But again, I think that the importance of the concept of cultural evolution is that it could provide a theoretical framework that makes this convergence possible. To me that is the main point, to have a framework that is general enough for interdisciplinary integration.

Here on our DH school, did you come across anything interesting, anything that would inspire you?

Yes, I think that the fine-grained knowledge that people here have about text and textual analysis in general is interesting for sure. I am also here because I hope there will be possible collaboration between people studying cultural evolution and ‘digital humanists’. Again, I think that the idea of cultural evolution can provide the theory and the questions, and the methods from digital humanities can give answers to these questions. And vice versa, it might inspire people from digital humanities to ask bolder questions. Yes, the computers are around, and you use them. But the point is what kind of questions you address.