Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 373–392 | Cite as

Modularity and Recombination in Technological Evolution

  • Mathieu Charbonneau
Research Article


Cultural evolutionists typically emphasize the informational aspect of social transmission, that of the learning, stabilizing, and transformation of mental representations along cultural lineages. Social transmission also depends on the production of public displays such as utterances, behaviors, and artifacts, as these displays are what social learners learn from. However, the generative processes involved in the production of public displays are usually abstracted away in both theoretical assessments and formal models. The aim of this paper is to complement the informational view with a generative dimension, emphasizing how the production of public displays both enable and constrain the production of modular cultural recipes through the process of innovation by recombination. In order to avoid a circular understanding of cultural recombination and cultural modularity, we need to take seriously the nature and structure of the generative processes involved in the maintenance of cultural traditions. A preliminary analysis of what recombination and modularity consist of is offered. It is shown how the study of recombination and modularity depends on a finer understanding of the generative processes involved in the production phase of social transmission. Finally, it is argued that the recombination process depends on the inventive production of an interface between modules and the complex recipes in which they figure, and that such interfaces are the direct result of the generative processes involved in the production of these recipes. The analysis is supported by the case study of the transition from the Oldowan to the Early Acheulean flake detachment techniques.


Cultural evolution Recombination Modularity Innovation Stone-tool technology 



I wish to thank Christophe Heintz, Olivier Morin, Mike O’Brien, and Dan Sperber for useful discussions and comments on the ideas presented here. The research reported in this manuscript was supported by the postdoctoral scholarship in technology studies of the Science Studies program at the Central European University and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° [609819], SOMICS.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science Studies Program, Department of Cognitive ScienceCentral European UniversityBudapestHungary

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