Three talks at the Evolution of Cultural Complexity session

Our group will be well represented at the Evolution of Cultural Complexity satellite session of the Conference on Complex Systems 2017 in Cancun. The session will take place on Sept. 21.

We have two student abstracts accepted:

A review and critique of Gabora’s models of cultural evolution

Mario Zarco and Tom Froese

Liane Gabora developed a computational model of cultural evolution named MAV (Meme And Variations) (Gabora 1995), which she later extended into a model called EVOC (EVOlution of Culture) (Gabora 2008b). The models simulate neural network based agents with an array-based body in a grid-cell world. Agents generate ideas for body configurations, or they copy them from their neighbors, depending on the relative fitness of the ideas. The simulations are motivated by her theory that internal models of the world are the units of culture that evolve (Gabora 1995). Ideas and artifacts are treated as merely the external reflection of the evolved state of an internal worldview, and they are expressed in the behavior of agents. We highlight a tension between treating behavior as an epiphenomenon and the growing recognition in cognitive archaeology of the constitutive role of material engagement (Malafouris 2013). As a consequence, we criticize the internalist view of mind adopted by Gabora. Moreover, we point out concerns with the fact that these models reduce the dynamics of cultural complexification to an evolutionary process based on fitness, even though Gabora argues that her culture evolution theory is non-Darwinian (Gabora 2008a). Also, we note technical problems related to the way her theory is implemented in the simulations. Finally, we conclude that her attempt of introducing an embodied model for cultural evolution is pointing in the right direction, but unfortunately falls short of its ambitious goal because the models become processes of learning and transmission of information using isolated neural networks.

  • Gabora, L. (1995). Meme and Variations: A Computational Model of Cultural Evolution. In L. Nadel & D. L. Stein (Eds.), Lectures in Complex Systems (pp. 471-485): Addison Wesley.
  • Gabora, L. (2008a). The cultural evolution of socially situated cognition. Cognitive Systems Research, 9(1), 104-114. doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2007.05.004
  • Gabora, L. (2008b). EVOC: A computer model of the evolution of culture. In V. Sloutsky, B. Love, & K. McRae (Eds.), 30th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1377-1382). North Salt Lake, UT: Sheridan Publishing
  • Malafouris, L. (2013). How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Could complex referential communication emerge without innate grammar or intergenerational transmission?

Jorge I. Campos and Tom Froese

Tomasello (2014) proposes a thought experiment inspired by Lord of the Flies: what would happen if a group of human infants grew up together in isolation? Tomasello argues that the infants could develop forms of joint intentionality during their lifetime (including communicating via pointing), but that forms of collective intentionality involving normative practices (including communicating via language) would only start to emerge over multiple generations as ontogeny becomes shaped by an increasingly complex sociocultural context. In contrast, groups of infant chimpanzees would not be able to develop either of these forms of sociality. This argument is based on two assumptions: (1) specifically human biology is necessary but not sufficient for the emergence of normative sociocultural practices, because (2) it is also necessary for humans to establish the required conventions over multiple generations. We probe both of these assumptions on the basis of a variation of the iterated learning model (ILM) of language evolution (Kirby and Hurford 2002). The results of our model allow us to suggest that (1) conventions resembling properties of language can emerge during repeated social interactions during a single generation’s lifetime, and (2) that this process does not depend on specificities of the learning agent’s cognitive structures. Nevertheless, a problem of initial conditions remains, in particular as sufficiently long and arbitrarily varied utterances are required for the ILM to work properly, and this is where biological and cultural intergenerational transmission may indeed play an essential role (Merker and Okanoya 2007).

  • Kirby, S., & Hurford, J. R. (2002). The emergence of linguistic structure: An overview of the iterated learning model. In A. Cangelosi & D. Parisi (Eds.), Simulating the Evolution of Language (pp. 121-147). London, UK: Springer-Verlag
  • Merker, B., & Okanoya, K. (2007). The natural history of human language: Bridging the gaps without magic. In C. Lyon, C. L. Nehaniv, & A. Cangelosi (Eds.), Emergence of Communication and Language (pp. 403-420). London, UK: Springer-Verlag.
  • Tomasello, M. (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


In addition, Tom Froese was invited to contribute a keynote talk to the satellite session.


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