ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (6): 965-980.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00965

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Cumulative cultural evolution theory from a psychological perspective: Theoretical development and integration of schools

YANG Lei1, CHEN Weiyang2, ZHU Qiujin1, ZHONG Nian1   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, School of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Wuhan 430072, China;
    2Research Institute of Social Development, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chengdu 611130, China
  • Received:2023-09-26 Online:2024-06-15 Published:2024-04-07

Abstract: Cumulative Cultural Evolution (CCE), a significant aspect of cultural evolution, examines the accumulation of material and social culture over time and its impact on individual behavior and social structures. CCE encompasses adaptive changes in complexity, efficiency, etc., during the cultural transmission and modification process over generations. Initially conceptualized to elucidate the distinctiveness of human cultures, CCE theory has expanded to include certain non-human cultural accumulation phenomena as research progressed. This broadening of scope illustrates the advancement and growing inclusivity of CCE theory.
By sorting out the history of the development of CCE theory, this paper contributes to a more comprehensive and systematic understanding of CCE. Initially, CCE was likened to the “ratcheting effect”, using a ratchet with an irreversible direction to describe the phenomenon of cultural modifications gradually accumulating over time. This framework led to defining core criteria for CCE. With the rise of cognitive science, the importance of individual cognitive factors has been increasingly emphasized. The “mountaineering effect” was introduced to suggest that CCE's direction is not fixed but diverse. Consequently, the core criteria based on the “mountaineering effect” have been developed.
There are two main schools of interpretation in CCE: the California School and the Paris School. Both agree that human cultural achievements across ecological niches stem from the accumulation of cultural learning over time. However, they diverge in their explanations of the process's nature and the directional stability of CCE. The California School focuses on cultural preservation, emphasizing the fidelity of cultural products and the social learning mechanisms facilitating this. In contrast, the Paris School emphasizes cultural change, the biased transformation of cultural products during transmission, and the psychological and ecological factors influencing this process. This paper integrates both views into a model that has two main components: First, it highlights how selected cultural information is faithfully transmitted through intergenerational social learning, leading to the stability of cultural traits. Second, it suggests how cultural information converges in one direction through constant modification and reconstruction and ultimately contributes to the stability of cultural traits as well.
As an interdisciplinary field, the evolution of CCE in conceptualization and interpretative frameworks underscores the significant role of cognitive factors. Recognizing CCE as an extensive dynamic process covering millennia, conducting scientific research on such a macroscopic issue from a micro-empirical perspective inevitably requires ongoing modifications and refinements. Future research could enhance CCE theory by exploring three key areas.
Firstly, from the perspective of theoretical development, although the core criteria have been the standard of measurement in many empirical studies since their introduction, CCE should be developed at a collective level, which cannot be reached by any individual, no matter how much effort they put into it. Only very few empirical studies have identified the criterion of “exceeds individuals’ discoveries”. Therefore, the criterion of “exceeds individuals’ discoveries” should be taken into account and considered as part of the conceptual content in subsequent studies.
Second, from the perspective of integrating schools of interpretation, although CCE is a process that combines both perspectives of the California School and the Paris School, there is not enough empirical evidence to support the integration of schools in a targeted way. Future research could quantitatively measure the "changes" in the evolution of sociocultural products to provide more relevant empirical evidence. In addition, with the rise of artificial intelligence, the relationship between social learning and the CCE of robots has received attention. Future research can rely on the vigorous development of various machine learning algorithms within computational cognitive science to explore and clarify the intrinsic mechanisms of CCE across multiple generations and thus provide practical and powerful supporting evidence for genre integration.
Finally, from a psychological perspective, future research could investigate additional psychological biases, such as exploratory and prosocial preferences, and how they influence CCE, as well as the boundary conditions under which psychological biases operate. Moreover, with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), machines are increasingly integrating into daily life, sometimes even substituting humans in decision-making and tasks. It’s important to note that human and AI decision-making can conflict. While AI promotes innovation, it might also skew perceptions with misinformation. Thus, future studies should examine the dual impacts of human-AI interaction on CCE, focusing on cognitive factors.

Key words: cumulative cultural evolution, cultural evolution, schools of interpretation, ratcheting effect, mountaineering effect

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