Fidelity and the emergence of stable and cumulative sociotechnical systems
Magazine article, 2013
The stability of behavior across generations is a definitional feature of culture that is typically seen as an effect of high cultural transmission fidelity. With some recent exceptions, however, formal models have rarely been brought to bear on this problem. Using an evolutionary quasispecies model we here explore the connection between fidelity and the emergence of stable complex sociotechnical organization. We find that fidelity determines the "bandwidth" of cultural transmission under selection, but that the process is highly unstable and that high transmission fidelity in itself does not provide stability. This means that to explain stability we must look to other factors that can scaffold the transmission process and prevent crashes. It is suggested that by lowering the rate of transmission errors and providing robustness against the effects of errors - which is the main stabilizing factor that we identify - the evolution of sophisticated pedagogical adaptations made the unique human type of generative and flexible culture possible.