Is the cultural evolution of technology cumulative or combinatorial?

Explanations of human technology often point to both its cumulative and combinatorial character. Using a novel computational framework, where individual agents attempt to solve problems by modifying, combining and transmitting technologies in an open-ended search space, this paper re-evaluates two prominent explanations for the cultural evolution of technology: that humans are equipped with (i) social learning mechanisms for minimizing information loss during transmission, and (ii) creative mechanisms for generating novel technologies via combinatorial innovation. Here, both information loss and combinatorial innovation are introduced as parameters in the model, and then manipulated to approximate situations where technological evolution is either more cumulative or combinatorial. Compared to existing models, which tend to marginalize the role of purposeful problem-solving, this approach allows for indefinite growth in complexity while directly simulating constraints from history and computation. The findings show that minimizing information loss is only required when the dynamics are strongly cumulative and characterised by incremental innovation. Contrary to previous findings, when agents are equipped with a capacity for combinatorial innovation, low levels of information loss are neither necessary nor sufficient for populations to solve increasingly complex problems. Instead, higher levels of information loss are advantageous for unmasking the potential for combinatorial innovation. This points to a parsimonious explanation for the cultural evolution of technology without invoking separate mechanisms of stability and creativity.