Biological Theory

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 322–335 | Cite as

All Innovations are Equal, but Some More than Others: (Re)integrating Modification Processes to the Origins of Cumulative Culture

  • Mathieu CharbonneauEmail author
Original Article


The cumulative open-endedness of human cultures represents a major break with the social traditions of nonhuman species. As traditions are altered and the modifications retained along the cultural lineage, human populations are capable of producing complex traits that no individual could have figured out on its own. For cultures to produce increasingly complex traditions, improvements and modifications must be kept for the next generations to build upon. High-fidelity transmission would thus act as a ratchet, retaining modifications and allowing the historical buildup of complex traditions. Mechanisms acting against slippage are important, of course, but cultures also need to move forward for the ratchet to retain anything important. In this article, I argue that studies of modification-generating processes and the many ways they shape cumulative culture have been overlooked. Key to a better understanding of cultural modification processes is taking seriously that cultural traditions consist of complex, hierarchically structured recipes. Taking such structures seriously and assessing the different ways they can vary in cultural design space, a novel picture for the onset of cumulative cultural evolution emerges. I argue that a possible impediment for cumulative culture in nonhuman animals may in fact reside not so much in the fidelity of their social transmission but rather in the constraints, internal and external, on their capacity to modify complex, hierarchically structured cultural recipes.


Cumulative cultural evolution Cultural recipes Evolutionary constraints Modification mechanisms Social transmission 



I dedicate this paper to the memory of Werner Callebaut, whose friendship and mentorship have been and remain invaluable to me. I am grateful to Alberto Acerbi, Andrew Buskell, Richard Byrne, and Olivier Morin for useful comments on a previous draft. I also thank two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and the fellows at the KLI for useful discussions. 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.


  1. Acerbi A, Tennie C, Nunn CL (2011) Modeling imitation and emulation in constrained search spaces. Learn Behav 39:104–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Acerbi A, Jacquet PO, Tennie C (2012) Behavioral constraints and the evolution of faithful social learning. Curr Zool 58:307–318Google Scholar
  3. Ambrose SH (2010) Coevolution of composite-tool technology, constructive memory, and language: implications for the evolution of modern human behavior. Curr Anthropol 51:S135–S147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arthur WB (2009) The nature of technology: what it is and how it evolves. Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Basalla G (1988) The evolution of technology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Botvinick MM (2008) Hierarchical models of behavior and prefrontal function. Trends Cogn Sci 12:201–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boyd R, Richerson PJ (1996) Why culture is common, but cultural evolution is rare. Proc Br Acad 88:77–93Google Scholar
  8. Bushnell EW, Sidman J, Brugger AE (2005) Transfer according to the means in human infants: the secret to generative tool-use? In: Roux V, Bril B (eds) Stone knapping: the necessary conditions for a uniquely hominin behaviour. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, pp 303–317Google Scholar
  9. Byrne RW (1999) Imitation without intentionality. Using string parsing to copy the organization of behaviour. Anim Cogn 2:63–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Byrne RW (2002) Imitation of novel complex actions: what does the evidence for animals mean? In: Slater PJB, Rosenblatt JS, Snowdon CT, Roper TJ (eds) Advances in the study of behavior. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 77–105Google Scholar
  11. Byrne RW (2003) Imitation as behaviour parsing. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 358:529–536CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Byrne RW (2004) The manual skills and cognition that lie behind hominid tool use. In: Russon AE, Begun DR (eds) Evolutionary origins of great ape intelligence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 31–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Byrne RW (2005) The maker not the tool: the cognitive significance of great ape manual skills. In: Roux V, Bril B (eds) Stone knapping: the necessary conditions for a uniquely hominin behaviour. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, pp 159–169Google Scholar
  14. Byrne RW, Russon AE (1998) Learning by imitation: a hierarchical approach. Behav Brain Sci 21:667–721Google Scholar
  15. Charbonneau M (2014) Populations without reproduction. Philos Sci 81:727–740CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Charbonneau M (2015) Mapping complex social transmission: technical constraints on the evolution of cultures. Biol Philos 30:527–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Chomsky N (1957) Syntactic structures. Mouton, GravenhageGoogle Scholar
  18. Conway CM, Christiansen MH (2001) Sequential learning in non-human primates. Trends Cogn Sci 5:539–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. de Beaune SA (2009) Technical invention in the Palaeolithic: what if the explanation comes from the cognitive and neuropsychological sciences? In: de Beaune SA, Coolidge FL, Wynn T (eds) Cognitive archaeology and human evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 3–14Google Scholar
  20. Dean LG, Vale GL, Laland KN et al (2014) Human cumulative culture: a comparative perspective. Biol Rev 89:284–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Derex M, Feron R, Godelle B, Raymond M (2015) Social learning and the replication process: an experimental investigation. Proceedings Royal Soc B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2015.0719 Google Scholar
  22. Enquist M, Ghirlanda S, Eriksson K (2011) Modelling the evolution and diversity of cumulative culture. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 366:412–423CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Galef BG (1992) The question of animal culture. Hum Nat 3:157–178CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gentner D (1983) Structure mapping: a theoretical framework for analogy. Cogn Sci 7:155–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gentner D (2003) Why we are so smart. In: Gentner D, Goldin-Meadow S (eds) Language in mind: advances in the study of language and thought. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 195–235Google Scholar
  26. Godfrey-Smith P (2012) Darwinism and cultural change. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 367:2160–2170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Greenfield PM (1991) Language, tools and brain: the ontogeny and phylogeny of hierarchically organized sequential behavior. Behav Brain Sci 14:531–595CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Guerra-Filho G, Aloimonos Y (2012) The syntax of human actions and interactions. J Neurolinguistics 25:500–514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Heyes CM (1993) Imitation, culture and cognition. Anim Behav 46:999–1010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Heyes CM (2005) Imitation by association. In: Hurley S, Chater N (eds) Perspectives on imitation: from neuroscience to social science, vol 1. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 157–176Google Scholar
  31. Heyes C, Ray ED (2000) What is the significance of imitation in animals? In: Slater PJB, Rosenblatt JS, Snowdon CT, Roper TJ (eds) Advances in the study of behavior, vol 29. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 215–245Google Scholar
  32. Holyoak KJ (2012) Analogy and relational reasoning. In: Holyoak KJ, Morrison RG (eds) Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 234–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Holyoak KJ, Thagard P (1995) Mental leaps: analogy in creative thought. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  34. Hoppitt W, Laland KN (2013) Social learning: an introduction to mechanisms, methods, and models. Princeton University Press, PrincetonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Horner V, Whiten A, Flynn E, de Waal FBM (2006) Faithful replication of foraging techniques along cultural transmission chains by chimpanzees and children. PNAS 103:13878–13883CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kauffman SA (1993) The origins of order: self-organization and selection in evolution. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  37. Kauffman S, Lobo J, Macready WG (2000) Optimal search on a technology landscape. J Econ Behav Organ 43:141–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lashley KS (1951) The problem of serial order in behavior. In: Jeffress LA (ed) Cerebral mechanisms in behavior. Wiley, New York, pp 112–136Google Scholar
  39. Lefebvre L, Whittle P, Lascaris E, Finkelstein A (1997) Feeding innovations and forebrain size in birds. Anim Behav 53:549–560CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lewis HM, Laland KN (2012) Transmission fidelity is the key to the build-up of cumulative culture. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 367:2171–2180CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lombard M, Haidle MN (2012) Thinking a bow-and-arrow set: cognitive implications of middle stone age bow and stone-tipped arrow technology. Camb Archaeol J 22:237–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lyman RL, O’Brien MJ (2003) Cultural traits: units of analysis in early twentieth-century. Anthr J Anthr Res 59:225–250Google Scholar
  43. Lyons DE, Young AG, Keil FC (2007) The hidden structure of overimitation. PNAS 104:19751–19756CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mesoudi A (2011) Cultural evolution: how Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mesoudi A, O’Brien MJ (2008a) The cultural transmission of Great Basin projectile point technology I: an experimental simulation. Am Antiq 73:3–28Google Scholar
  46. Mesoudi A, O’Brien MJ (2008b) The learning and transmission of hierarchical cultural recipes. Biol Theory 3:63–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Mesoudi A, O’Brien MJ (2009) Placing archaeology within a unified science of cultural evolution. In: Shennan S (ed) Pattern and process in cultural evolution. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 21–32Google Scholar
  48. Mesoudi A, Whiten A (2004) The hierarchical transformation of event knowledge in human cultural transmission. J Cogn Cult 4:1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN (2004) Perspective: is human cultural evolution Darwinian? Evidence reviewed from the perspective of The Origin of Species. Evolution 58:1–11Google Scholar
  50. Mesoudi A, Laland KN, Boyd R et al (2013) The cultural evolution of technology and science. In: Richerson PJ, Christiansen MH (eds) Cultural evolution: society, technology, language, and religion. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 193–216Google Scholar
  51. Miller GA, Galanter E, Pribram KH (1960) Plans and structure of behavior. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Moore MW (2007) Lithic design space modelling and cognition in Homo floresiensis. In: Schalley AC, Khlentzos D (eds) Mental states vol I: evolution, function, nature. John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam, pp 11–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Moore MW (2010) “Grammar of action” and stone flaking design space. In: Nowell A, Davidson I (eds) Stone tools and the evolution of human cognition. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, pp 13–43Google Scholar
  54. Neff H (1992) Ceramics and evolution. Archaeol Method Theory 4:141–193Google Scholar
  55. O’Brien MJ, Bentley RA (2011) Stimulated variation and cascades: two processes in the evolution of complex technological systems. J Archaeol Method Theory 18:309–335CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. O’Brien MJ, Shennan SJ (eds) (2010) Innovation in cultural systems: contributions from evolutionary anthropology. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  57. O’Brien MJ, Lyman RL, Mesoudi A, VanPool TL (2010) Cultural traits as units of analysis. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 365:3797–3806CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Pastra K, Aloimonos Y (2012) The minimalist grammar of action. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 367:103–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Pelegrin J (1993) A framework for analyzing prehistoric stone tool manufacture and a tentative application to some early stones industries. In: Berthelet A, Chavaillon J (eds) The use of tools by human and non-human primates. Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp 302–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci 31:109–178Google Scholar
  61. Powell A, Shennan S, Thomas M (2009) Late Pleistocene demography and the appearance of modern human behavior. Science 324:1298–1301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Pradhan GR, Tennie C, van Schaik CP (2012) Social organization and the evolution of cumulative technology in apes and hominins. J Hum Evol 63:180–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Querbes A, Vaesen K, Houkes W (2014) Complexity and demographic explanations of cumulative culture. PLoS ONE 9:e102543CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Reader SM, Laland KN (eds) (2003) Animal innovation. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  65. Richerson PJ, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  66. Rossano MJ (2009) The archaeology of consciousness. In: de Beaune SA, Coolidge FL, Wynn T (eds) Cognitive archaeology and human evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 25–35Google Scholar
  67. Roux V, Bril B (eds) (2005) Stone knapping: the necessary conditions for a uniquely hominin behaviour. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  68. Schank RC, Abelson RP (1977) Scripts, plans, goals, and understanding. Lawrence Erlbaum, HillsdaleGoogle Scholar
  69. Simon HA (1962) The architecture of complexity. Proc Am Philos Soc 106:467–482Google Scholar
  70. Stadler BMR, Stadler PF, Wagner GP, Fontana W (2001) The topology of the possible: formal spaces underlying patterns of evolutionary change. J Theor Biol 213:241–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Steele J, Francesco Ferrari P, Fogassi L (2012) From action to language: comparative perspectives on primate tool use, gesture and the evolution of human language. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 367:4–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Stout D (2011) Stone toolmaking and the evolution of human culture and cognition. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 366:1050–1059CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Stout D, Semaw S, Rogers MJ, Cauche D (2010) Technological variation in the earliest Oldowan from Gona, Afar, Ethiopia. J Hum Evol 58:474–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philos Trans Royal Soc B 364:2405–2415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Tomasello M (1994/2009) The question of chimpanzee culture, plus postscript. In: Laland KN, Galef BG (eds) The question of animal culture. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 198–221Google Scholar
  76. Tomasello M (1999) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  77. Tomasello M, Kruger AC, Ratner HH (1993) Cultural learning. Behav Brain Sci 16:495–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Vaesen K (2012) The cognitive bases of human tool use. Behav Brain Sci 35:203–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Wadley L (2010) Compound-adhesive manufacture as a behavioral proxy for complex cognition in the Middle Stone Age. Curr Anthropol 51:S111–S119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Wadley L, Hodgskiss T, Grant M (2009) Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa. PNAS 106:9590–9594CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Whiten A (2002) Imitation of sequential and hierarchical structure in action: experimental studies with children and chimpanzees. In: Dautenhahn K, Nehaniv CL (eds) Imitation in animals and artifacts: complex adaptive systems. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 191–209Google Scholar
  82. Whiten A, Goodall J, McGrew WC et al (2001) Charting cultural variation in chimpanzees. Behaviour 132:1481–1516CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Whiten A, Horner V, de Waal FBM (2005) Conformity to cultural norms of tool use in chimpanzees. Nature 437:737–740CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Whittaker JC (1994) Flintknapping: making and understanding stone tools. University of Texas Press, AustinGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science Studies Program, Departments of Cognitive Science and Philosophy, Social Mind CenterCentral European UniversityBudapestHungary

Personalised recommendations