Cultural Evolution and the Evolution of Cultural Information

Biological Theory 18 (1):30-42 (2023)
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Cultural evolution is normally framed in informational terms. However, it is not clear whether this is an adequate way to model cultural evolutionary phenomena and what, precisely, “information” is supposed to mean in this context. Would cultural evolutionary theory benefit from a well-developed theory of cultural information? The prevailing sentiment is that, in contradistinction to biology, informational language should be used nontechnically in this context for descriptive, but not explanatory, purposes. Against this view, this article makes the case for the need to take a proper biology-based “informational turn” in the cultural evolutionary sciences. I argue that the current vague use of informational language misses out on the potential benefits for advancing understanding of phenomena that information-theoretic reasoning has provided in other sciences, especially genetics. In particular, by emphasizing the informational aspects of cultural evolutionary processes, this approach can clarify some conceptual and methodological problems that have plagued cultural evolutionary theory since its inception, including (1) how to determine the channel conditions of cultural information flow, (2) the nature and scope of cultural information, and (3) how to quantify trends of cultural cumulation. More generally, theories of cultural evolution will be incomplete until the mechanisms underlying cultural processes are better understood and integrated into the explanations. This article explores the adequacy of an information-theoretic framework to accomplish these purposes.

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