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How to analyse cultural change?

Imperial College Complexity & Networks Seminar
When Feb 18, 2014
from 12:00 PM to 01:00 PM
Where Gabor Seminar Room 611, Electrical & Electronic Engineering Building, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus
Contact Name
Contact Phone +44 (0)20 7594 7574
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Speaker: Dr Anne Kandler, AHRC CECD, Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Title: How to analyse cultural change?

Abstract: Cultural change is often quantified by changes in frequency of cultural traits over time. Based on those (observable) frequency patterns researchers aim to infer the nature of the underlying evolutionary processes and therefore to identify the (unobservable) causes of cultural change. Especially in archaeological and anthropological applications this inverse problem gains particular importance as occurrence or usage frequencies are often the only available information about past cultural traits or traditions and the forces affecting them. In this talk we start analyzing the described inference problem and discuss it in the context of the question of which learning strategies human populations should deploy to be well-adapted to changing environmental conditions. To do so we develop a mathematical framework which establishes a causal relationship between changes in frequency of different cultural traits and the considered underlying evolutionary processes (in our case learning strategies). Besides gaining theoretical insights into the question of which learning strategies lead to efficient adaptation processes in changing environments we focus on ‘reverse engineering’ conclusions about the learning strategies deployed in current or past population, given knowledge of the frequency change dynamic over space and time. Using appropriate statistical techniques we investigate under which conditions population-level characteristics such as frequency distributions of cultural variants  carry a signature of the underlying evolutionary processes and if this is the case how much information can be inferred from it. Importantly, we do not expect the existence of a unique relationship between observed frequency data and underlying evolutionary processes; to the contrary, we suspect that different processes can produce similar frequency pattern. However, our approach might help narrow down the range of possible processes that could have produced those observed frequency patterns, and thus still be instructive in the face of uncertainty. Rather than identifying a single evolutionary process that explains the data, we focus on excluding processes that cannot have produced the observed changes in frequencies. In the last part of the talk, we demonstrate the applicability of the developed framework to anthropological case studies.

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