Explaining the origins of cumulative culture, and how it is maintained over long timescales, constitutes a challenge for theories of cultural evolution. Previous theoretical work has emphasized two fundamental causal processes: cultural adaptation (where technologies are refined towards a functional objective) and cultural exaptation (the repurposing of existing technologies towards a new functional goal). Yet, despite the prominence of cultural exaptation in theoretical explanations, this process is often absent from models and experiments of cumulative culture. Using an agent-based model, where agents attempt to solve problems in a high-dimensional problem space, the current paper investigates the relationship between cultural adaptation and cultural exaptation and produces three major findings. First, cultural dynamics often end up in optimization traps: here, the process of optimization causes the dynamics of change to cease, with populations entering a state of equilibrium. Second, escaping these optimization traps requires cultural dynamics to explore the problem space rapidly enough to create a moving target for optimization. This results in a positive feedback loop of open-ended growth in both the diversity and complexity of cultural solutions. Finally, the results helped delineate the roles played by social and asocial mechanisms: asocial mechanisms of innovation drive the emergence of cumulative culture and social mechanisms of within-group transmission help maintain these dynamics over long timescales.
Escaping optimization traps: the role of cultural adaptation and cultural exaptation in facilitating open-ended cumulative dynamics
Palgrave Communications volume 5, Article number: 149 (2019)