Cultural longevity: Morin on cultural lineages

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Abstract

Morin has written a rich and valuable book. Its main aim is to isolate the factors involved in maintaining behavioural lineages over time, and to understand how these factors might interact. In doing so, it takes issue with the abstract and idealised models and arguments of dual-inheritance theorists, which are alleged in this account to rely on an overly simplistic notion of imitative learning. Morin’s book is full of ethnographic, anthropological, and psychological research, and there is much to commend in it. However, Morin’s arguments against the dual-inheritance theorists are less convincing when put under scrutiny, and his positive picture which includes appeals to ostensive communication, intrinsic appeal and cultural attraction has some difficulties. I argue that when we contrast dual-inheritance theorists and Morin, we find that there may be fewer differences and greater commonalities than Morin’s book might suggest.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It should be noted that Morin’s characterisation of factors of attraction is much broader than other definitions proffered by cultural epidemiologists. Sperber (1996), for instance, predominantly considers the doxastic background of an individual in determining the extent to which certain behaviours are acquired, in virtue of the fact that doxastic backgrounds bias processes of inferential reconstruction during learning.

  2. 2.

    As Richard Moore (personal comm.) has pointed out, such considerations might reflect the fact that Morin is simply interested in explaining a different facet of culture and cultural evolution than that of Tomasello, Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich. In many of the studies of these thinkers cited by Morin (e.g. Boyd and Richerson 1985; Henrich and Gil-White 2001; Tomasello 1999), the focus is on the conditions under which certain cognitive capacities were likely to have been selected for in a process of evolution by natural selection. This is not the focus of Morin’s book, which is predominantly centred on psychological considerations that impact the stability of behavioural lineages over time. But this might mean that Morin’s arguments are more of a complement to the evolutionary narratives of Tomasello, Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich, rather than an alternative or argument against them.

  3. 3.

    Though, there might be an oblique reference to niche construction on the next to last page of the book: “Are traditions our “niche”? I have argued that such an adaptation would not change so many things. In the view developed here, the best way to accumulate numerous, lasting traditions is to communicate abundantly and exchange a lot of information” (p. 251).

  4. 4.

    As becomes clear, cultural survival is a measure of the temporal persistence of some behavioural lineage—though if this is accurate, then it has an almost an identical definition to that of ‘culture’ (e.g., p. 197).

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Acknowledgments

I sincerely thank Helen Curry, Richard Moore, and Alberto Acerbi for their comments on previous versions of this piece. Further, special thanks go to Olivier Morin for many clarificatory and engaging discussions.

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Correspondence to Andrew Buskell.

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Buskell, A. Cultural longevity: Morin on cultural lineages. Biol Philos 31, 435–446 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-015-9506-y

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Keywords

  • Cultural evolution
  • Imitation
  • Niche construction
  • Dual-inheritance