University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Social and Developmental Psychology (SDP) Seminar Series > Chinese Whispers and Virtual Arrowheads: What cultural transmission experiments can tell us about cultural evolution

Chinese Whispers and Virtual Arrowheads: What cultural transmission experiments can tell us about cultural evolution

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Julain Oldmeadow.

In the first part of this talk, I will discuss some experiments that I have conducted which use Bartlett’s (1932) transmission chain method (aka the method of serial reproduction) to simulate cultural transmission in the lab. For example, in one of these studies (Mesoudi, Whiten & Dunbar, 2006, Brit. J. Psychol. 97, 405-423) I found that information about third-party social relationships was passed on with greater accuracy and in greater quantity than equivalent non-social information. This social bias in cultural transmission was attributed to ‘social brain’ hypotheses concerning the evolution of human cognition. In the second half of the talk I will argue that such findings can be used to inform a theory of cultural evolution, the idea that human culture changes in a manner comparable to that in which biological species evolve (Mesoudi, Whiten & Laland, 2004, Evolution 58, 1-11; 2006, Beh. Brain Sci. 29, 329-383). Cultural transmission experiments, which reveal the micro-evolutionary details of who copies what from whom and how, can be extrapolated to the population level in order to explain long-term and large-scale aspects of cultural change, just as evolutionary biologists extrapolate from the microevolutionary forces of natural selection, sexual selection, drift etc. up to biological macroevolution. This is illustrated by a recent experiment (Mesoudi & O’Brien, in press, American Antiquity) in which participants designed “virtual arrowheads”, with different phases of the experiment simulating different forms of cultural transmission. Matching our experimental data to actual archaeological data allowed us to identify the underlying (microevolutionary) transmission mechanisms behind (macroevolutionary) archaeological patterns.

This talk is part of the Social and Developmental Psychology (SDP) Seminar Series series.

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