High-fidelity cultural transmission, rather than brute intelligence, is the secret of our species’ success, or so many cultural evolutionists claim. It has been selected because it ensures the spread, stability and longevity of beneficial cultural traditions, and it supports cumulative cultural change. To play these roles, however, fidelity must be a causally-efficient property of cultural transmission. This is where the grain problem comes in and challenges the explanatory potency of fidelity. Assessing the degree of fidelity of any episode or mechanism of cultural transmission always depends upon an investigator’s choice of grain of description at which cultural traditions are being studied. The fidelity of cultural transmission then appears to be relative to the granularity at which one approaches cultural variation, and since there is a multiplicity of grains of description by which the same tradition can be studied, there results a multiplicity of measures of fidelity for a same event or mechanism of cultural transmission. If this is correct, because fidelity is always relative to the grain of description dictated by the local and specific research interests of the investigator, then there seems to be no fact of the matter as to whether cultural transmission is faithful or not, independently from a researcher’s framework of analysis. The aims of this paper are to offer a conceptual clarification of the grain problem in cultural evolution, to assess its causes, to unpack its epistemological implications, and to examine its reach and consequences for a science of cultural evolution.
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Charbonneau (2020) refers to fidelity as an outcome as ‘episodic fidelity’ and fidelity as a process as ‘propensity fidelity’. Although we use different labels, our categories map on those used by Charbonneau.
Several expressions are used in the literature to refer to what we call ‘grain of description’. Acerbi and Mesoudi (2015) speak of ‘granularity of analysis’. Boudry (2018) speaks of ‘level of resolution’ and ‘level of abstraction’; Godfrey-Smith (2012) of ‘contrast’. Hoppitt and Laland (2013) speak of the ‘size’ of (action) units; Scott‐Phillips et al, (2018, p. 165) of ‘levels of detail and granularity’. Etc.
Our example of projectile point features is based on morphometrical analysis alone. More complexity can be added by considering the specific techniques used to produce the features, in which case even the flute feature may be more complex than a mere presence/absence trait [see Charbonneau (2015a, 2018) for discussion of the implications of dealing with the variation of production techniques in addition to morphological variation].
We thank an anonymous referee for asking us to clarify this point.
A similar kind of abuse could be made by systematically opting for a grain of description so fine that any cultural trait will be seen as unique, and thus always different in some respect from another, consequently leading to the impossibility of any form of replication. We know of no actual instances of such abuse, so we decided to focus on actual abuses rather than hypothetical ones.
It is important to note that the philosophical program developed by Dennett (2017)—showing how intelligent design can emerge from non-intelligent design—is not affected by the argument developed here. This is because, for Dennett’s argument to work, all that is required is that those cultural traits that bring about competence without comprehension do so on a rather coarse grain of description at which they replicate (e.g., cognitive traits such as counting, reading, formal logic, etc.), not that replication be a pervasive property of cultural learning. We do not deny some cultural variants are better studied with such grain, and so our argument does not challenge Dennett’s philosophical program.
Although sometimes these details do count, as fermented dairy products such as yogurt or cheese contain less lactose than milk, and therefore can be consumed by lactose intolerant populations (Gerbault et al. 2011).
We thank Maria Kronfeldner for pointing to this idea (personal discussion, MC).
The grain problem is not unique to cultural evolution. For instance, it has a rich history in the philosophy of biology, where several authors have discussed how choosing a grain at which a population, adaptations, or even the environment are described affects assessments about natural selection (Abrams 2009, 2014; Beatty 1984; e.g., Brandon 1990). For instance, see a similar discussion about the grain problem in evolutionary psychology in Sterelny and Griffiths (1999, chapter 13).
Hoppitt and Laland (2013) prefer the expression ‘behaviorial level’ (p. 53).
In fact, most if not all evolutionary models arguing in favour of some form of social learning (or a capacity for social learning in general) as a fitness-enhancing adaptation for culture in fact do not model how some specific cognitive mechanisms were selected to serve that role, but instead model in which ecological conditions some behaviourally-characterized form of social learning—i.e., learning patterns spelled out in terms of input and output classes of observed cultural variation—would be adaptative (e.g., Boyd and Richerson 1995). This strategy is akin to adopting a cultural analog to the phenotypic gambit (Laland 2004).
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Special thanks to Ildikó Király and György Gergely for sharing their unpublished results, and to Ildikó Király for discussing them. MC was was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant Agreement (Number 609819), SOMICS. PB was supported by a Macquarie University Research Fellowship and a Large Grant from the John Templeton Foundation (Grant ID 60811).
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Charbonneau, M., Bourrat, P. Fidelity and the grain problem in cultural evolution. Synthese (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03047-1
- Cultural evolution
- Cultural transmission
- Grain of description