factors limiting cultural evolution

Hi --

Will & I took the moms to St. Johann am Pongau. We had dinner with them & then walked around the older part of the town in the rain looking at the views. The clouds were quite high and it was twilight so you could see a light band around the horizon with the alps surrounding us, while darkness was directly overhead.

What was particularly cool was going to a graveyard. I knew one of my Austrian friends told me she visited her grandmother's grave every single week, but I hadn't really realized the consequences of that kind of devotion. Every grave looked fresh although many were decades old, and all were planted with flowers, and most of them had candles lit on them! It was about 10pm, so they must stay lit a long time. I thought it was amazing that most graves had been visited that very day, presumably right after church. There was a vending machine for candles, and almost all the graves have red glass candleholders to shelter them from wind & rain.

Oddly, one of these carefully-kept graves had a statue of an angel on it, but the angel was entirely covered with ivy except for one hand and its wings! It was kind of cool looking. I guess the family didn't really care for the statue.

Monday we went to Salzburg. I had heard so much about it being amazingly beautiful that it was a little bit disappointing -- it wasn't necessarily prettier than Bath or Vienna. But it was very cool & the old town really reminded me of every movie you've ever seen about Mozart. I think it would be a great place to live or to raise kids. "We" was Will & I & Patricia. There is a huge white fort overlooking the town on a hill you can see from the train, and I thought we'd never go that far, but in fact the old town is well beyond the station & at the foot of this hill, so in the end we did go up to it. Wikipedia says it is one of the best-preserved castles in Europe. It was from around 1000AD, a lot of the work is from 1400 though. It belonged to arch-bishops but they were also really princes then & quite involved in trying to be both politically & religiously somewhat independent.

Anyway, the main thing I am working on this week is a talk. Normally when I give talks I revise & extend existing ones, since work tends to build on previous work. But in this case I am really writing it from scratch, because it is focussed on all new things I have done & learned since I have been here. So I expect it will take 12-18 hours to write.

Dad asked for a summary -- well, I have already written an abstract, so I will put that here as the summary:

Dear friend of the KLI,

We kindly invite you to participate in our next Brown Bag Discussion ("bring your own lunch, sit back, enjoy the talk, and join us in the discussion"):

Thursday 5 June, 1.15 p.m.

(KLI and University of Bath)

"What limits the biological evolution of cultural evolution? Modularity in evolution and learning"


Since Darwin first presented the theory of natural selection, scientific (and other) debate has focussed around whether this simple process can explain the level of diversity we witness in nature. Recently, EvoDevo has focussed research on the way modularity is used to develop complexity. The primary research questions here are both proximate: how modules differentiate themselves from homogeneous initial conditions, and ultimate: why is this a useful strategy? These questions can equally be applied to the interacting systems that provide intelligent behavior: biological evolution, cultural evolution and individual learning.

My initial interest in cultural evolution arose from an intuitive dislike of one strand of research on language origins, which suggested that language was "extra-Darwinian" because it requires the evolution of altruism. In previous work (Cace and Bryson 2007) I have shown that altruistic communication is easily evolved. Since coming to the KLI I have come to better understand the mechanisms behind this. My talk includes a brief review this work.

What then limits the extent to which species utilise culture for rapidly evolving intelligent behavior? I believe there are a number of mechanisms:
  • Speed vs Reliability trade-offs: These tradeoffs are fairly well understood when applied to modular learning systems in individuals --- particularly short term and long term learning and memory. I believe similar concerns apply here.
  • The Baldwin effect: The mechanisms which shape evolution (including the speed of change in the environment) determine what will in the long term be encoded genetically and what left to individual learning. I believe this statement can be extended to include the third process of cultural evolution.
  • Niche size and competition with other species: I believe the advantage of the cognitive strategy given its costs and benefits are more limited than we tend to realize.
  • Representational issues: Just as biological complexity has been dependent on the evolution of genetic representations for modular and hierarchical instructions, so cultural complexity is limited by the capacity to transmit not only quantity but structure. I hypothesize about representational advantages humans have over other species for the evolution of languages (c.f. Bryson 2007; 2008).

In my talk I present these factors and my evidence for them to date. I welcome feedback and additional references as this is very much work in progress.


  • Ivana Cace and Joanna J. Bryson, ``Agent Based Modelling of Communication Costs: Why Information can be Free'', in Emergence and Evolution of Linguistic Communication C. Lyon, C. L Nehaniv and A. Cangelosi, eds., pp. 305-322, Springer 2007.
  • Joanna J. Bryson, ``Representational Requirements for Evolving Cultural Evolution'', invited and reviewed target article (and responses) in interdisciplines' Web conference, Adaptation and Representation 28 May 2007.
  • Joanna J. Bryson ``Embodiment versus Memetics'', Mind & Society, 7(1):77-94, June 2008.

Biographical note

Joanna Bryson is a member of faculty at the University of Bath in the department of Computer Science. She holds degrees in Artificial Intelligence from MIT (PhD) and Edinburgh (MSc), and Psychology from Edinburgh (MPhil) and Chicago (BA). She is currently on sabbatical at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, studying factors limiting the biological evolution of cultural evolution. She is also a visiting research fellow at the University of Nottingham Methods and Data Institute.

We look forward to seeing you at the KLI!

Eva Karner (secretary)
Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research
Adolf Lorenz Gasse 2
A-3422 Altenberg, Austria
Phone: +43-2242-32390 Fax: +43-2242-323904