Culturally Biased Transmission of Novel Traits

From: William Benzon (
Date: Fri Jan 25 2002 - 15:44:19 GMT

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    Henrich, J. (2001). "Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations:
    Adoption Dynamics Indicate That Biased Cultural Transmission Is the
    Predominate Force in Behavorial Change." American Anthropologist 103(4):


    In challenging the pervasive model of individual actors as cost-benefit
    analysts who adapt their behavior by learning from the environment, this
    article analyzes the temporal dynamics of both environmental (individual)
    learning and biased cultural transmission processes by comparing these
    dynamics with the robust "S-shaped" curves that emerge from the diffusion of
    innovation literature. The analysis shows three things: (1) that
    environmental learning alone never produces the S-shaped adoption dynamics
    typically observed in the spread of novel practices, ideas, and
    technologies; (2) that biased cultural transmission always produces the
    S-shaped temporal dynamics; and (3) that a combination of environmental
    learning and biased cultural transmission can generate S-dynamics but only
    when biased cultural transmission is the predominate force in the spread of
    new behaviors. These findings suggest that biased cultural transmission
    processes are much more important to understanding the diffusion of
    innovations and sociocultural evolution than is often assumed by most


    Unbiased transmission: Naive individuals adopt the behavior of those in a
    previous generation.

    Forms of biased transmission (p. 997):

    "Direct biases result from cues that arise from the interaction of specific
    qualities of an idea, belief, practice or value with our social learning

    "Under prestige-biased transmission, people copy ideas or practices from
    individuals with specific qualities or attributes, regardless of the
    characteristics of the behaviors or ideas that are copied."

    "Finally, under conformist transmission, humans preferentially imitate ideas
    and behaviors that are expressed by a majority of the group over traits
    expressed by the minority."

    * * * * *

    "Further evidence for a substantial reliance on cultural transmission comes
    from the spread of maladaptive or costly behavioral traits. My analysis
    indicates that maladaptive traits may spread against the force of individual
    learning ... as long as L and B are sufficiently large. For example, the
    practice of bottle-feeding infants spread throughout the Third World despite
    the fact that this practice produces higher rates of sickness, infection,
    and death in infants under Third World conditions than does breast-feeding."
    (pp. 1007-1008)

    L: The probability the environmental information is inconclusive.

    B: Differences in replicatory propensities for Trait 1 and Trait 2, where
    1 is the presence of a novel trait while 2 is the absence of that trait.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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