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Durham University

Department of Anthropology


Publication details for Dr Jeremy Kendal

Kendal, J.R. (2012). Comment concerning cumulative cultural evolution, on M. O'Brien and K.N. Laland 'Genes, culture and agriculture: an example of human niche construction'. Current Anthropology 53(4): 434-470.

Author(s) from Durham


O’Brien and Laland point out that human culture is exceptional in its cumulative nature. This is often characterized by the ratchet effect, highlighting that high-fidelity social transmission can underpin the accumulation of trait modifications. They also note that the developmental niche-construction processes underlying cultural evolution are understudied. I agree that the evolutionary consequences of culturally constructed learning environments are indeed understudied and that attention to this area may provide a fresh assessment of cumulative cultural evolution.

An important focus of cumulative cultural evolution research is in assessing individual cognitive prerequisites that facilitate high-fidelity cultural transmission and the adoption of adaptive innovations (Ehn and Laland 2012). However, it is also important to consider the role of developmental niche construction and the ecological inheritance of learning environments, including forms of symbolic representation and material culture, on cumulative cultural evolution (Cole 1995; Sterelny 2012; Wheeler and Clark 2009).

Culturally derived scaffolding for learning can have a direct effect on the differential adoption and retention of cultural traits (cultural selection). For instance, pedagogical traditions in apprenticeships, including traditional patterns of intervention, correction, and collaboration may influence the fidelity of transmission and the potential for cumulative cultural evolution (Gergely and Csibra 2006; Tehrani and Reide 2008; Tennie, Call, and Tomasello 2009).

There is also the potential for cumulative cultural evolutionary dynamics to be shaped by forms of symbolic representation. Mathematical history provides particularly obvious examples, where invention of new notation systems, for instance Hindu-Arabic in place of Roman numerals or Feynman diagrams in quantum mechanics, dramatically altered the evolvability of research fields (Gauvain 1998).

Thus, for the cumulative cultural evolution of many traits, high-fidelity social transmission and the potential for invention may be critically affected by culturally constructed learning environments (Tennie, Call, and Tomasello 2009). Furthermore, a complete account of cognition required for cumulative cultural evolution may often be reliant on its extension beyond the mind of the individual and on its distributed nature across people and artefacts (Donald 2000; Hutchins 1995, 2008). Without accounting explicitly for the role of developmental niche construction and the ecological inheritance of learning environments, there can be an over- or misattribution of cognitive facility to the mind in order to explain the cumulative cultural evolution of skills such as computational tasks (Hutchins 1995).

O’Brien and Laland provide a detailed account of potential gene-culture coevolutionary pathways affecting the cumulative cultural evolution of farming technologies and medicinal practices. A key process in these dynamics is likely to be the niche construction of inherited learning environments, which themselves can be subject to cultural selection and affected by ecological and genetic evolutionary dynamics of human, crop, livestock, and pathogen populations. Thus, the simple ratchet analogy hides complex mechanisms that can result in cumulative cultural evolution of knowledge and beliefs (Tennie, Call, and Tomasello 2009).