Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 527–546 | Cite as

Mapping complex social transmission: technical constraints on the evolution of cultures



Social transmission is at the core of cultural evolutionary theory. It occurs when a demonstrator uses mental representations to produce some public displays (utterances, behaviors, artifacts, etc.) which in turn allow a learner to acquire similar mental representations. Although cultural evolutionists do not dispute this view of social transmission, they typically abstract away from the multistep nature of the process when they speak of cultural variants at large, thereby referring both to variation and evolutionary change in mental representations as well as in their corresponding public displays. This conflation suggests that differentiating each step of the transmission process is redundant. In this paper, I examine different forms of interplay between the multistep nature of social transmission and the metric spaces used by cultural evolutionists to measure cultural variation and to model cultural change. I offer a conceptual analysis of what assumptions seem to be at work when cultural evolutionists conflate the complex causal sequence of social transmission as a single space of variation in which populations evolve. To this aim, I use the framework of variation spaces, a formal framework commonly used in evolutionary biology, and I develop two theoretical concepts, ‘technique’ and ‘technical space’, for addressing cases where the complexity of social transmission defies the handy assumption of a single variation space for cultural change.


Social transmission Cultural evolution Evolutionary constraints Techniques Palaeoarchaeology 



I am grateful to Werner Callebaut, Brian McLoone, Olivier Morin, Adam Westra, and two anonymous referees for useful comments on a previous draft. I also thank the fellows at the KLI for useful discussions, Louis Sagnières for discussions about techniques, and John C. Whittaker and Woody Blackwell for explaining the limits of flintknapping techniques to me, and taking my questions about impossible and improbable lithic tools morphologies seriously. This paper was written with the financial support of the Fonds de recherche du QuébecSociété et culture while I was being hosted by the KLI Institute.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.KLI InstituteKlosterneuburgAustria

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