Mendel- Gardens in the air (Illustration: Anat Zelligowski)

Until Gregor Mendel came along, students of Darwin explored biological evolution without a mechanism to explain heredity. With his pea experiments, Mendel began to illuminate the genetic processes that underlie evolution — and eventually gave evolutionary theory a causal substrate.

According to former Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow Vanessa Ferdinand, now a cognitive scientist at the University of Melbourne, the field of cultural evolution is ripe for a Mendelian moment. Ferdinand hopes that in the next several years, theorists of cultural evolution will deepen their account of the mechanisms that underlie cultural replication — and give themselves the kind of causal clarity that Mendel gave to Darwin’s beginnings. “Cognitive science,” Ferdinand says, “is the Mendel of cultural evolution.”

Aug. 5-7, SFI hosts its second working group on cumulative cultural evolution. Along with Ferdinand, the event is led by longtime SFI External Professor Rob Boyd, who is also Origins Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Bill Thompson, a cognitive scientist at Princeton University and Berkeley’s Computational Cognitive Science Lab.

Last year, Boyd and Ferdinand brought together a group to explore the meaning of cumulative cultural more broadly. The working group gathered scientists studying cultural evolution from a broad range of fields including anthropology, cognitive science, and philosophy of biology. Their task was to synthesize the ways that different fields understand cumulative culture.

By all accounts, workshop participants found the group exciting and fruitful — and their response reflects current enthusiasm in the field more generally. At the moment, the field is bursting with new questions and diverse approaches. There are both micro (cognitive) and macro (social) approaches to cultural evolution, and a wide variety of methods for studying it that range from large-scale network experiments to social decision-making models to computational textual analysis.

According to Thompson, both the plethora of new cultural datasets and the ongoing refinement of computational methods have fueled current research. He explains that if we take two people who are biologically identical from two different time periods — people who may have had very different technological experiences — we find that their cognitive capabilities can be significantly different. “Yet we cannot explain this difference biologically or in terms of individual learning, and this suggests some other category of explanation.” Is this an evolutionary process?

This year, the working group will focus specifically on mechanisms of cultural inheritance. By homing in on the mechanisms that drive cultural stability and change, Boyd, Ferdinand, and Thompson hope to gain more clarity about the cognitive processes that generate the fabric of cumulative culture — and open the way for a new causal framework.