Cultural Evolution

The Cultural Evolution Programme has launched a research project on “THE DIFFUSION OF CULTURAL TRAITS”

Is it legitimate to talk about “cultural traits”? Is it possible to build models of their diffusion, and are they explanatory or useful? Are there differences and peculiarities in various aspects of culture that are studied by different disciplines? By cultural trait we can provisionally intend any trait whose production in individuals depends to some extent on social learning. For example, famous and foundational models of “cultural evolution” such as those by Cavalli Sforza and Feldman (1973, 1981), but also the contemporary models by Richerson, Boyd and colleagues, are actually models of the diffusion of socially transmitted, discrete traits. The idea of diffusion is also present in the tradition of cultural anthropology (although probably with a controversial status). This is remarkable for our interdisciplinary research because cultural anthropology is, on the one hand, the elective field whose object of study is culture, and, on the other hand, tendentially hostile to any idea presented under the label of “cultural evolution”. To be clear, we do not think to cultural trait diffusion as an exhaustive theory of culture and cultural change. We rather believe that the diffusion of cultural traits can be ground for a large interdisciplinary encounter, at least (but not limited to) including evolutionary modeling, anthropology, linguistics, musicology, economics, geography, archaeology, but also biology and computer science, information theory. Common epistemological problems can be declined and addressed, such as the delimitation of traits and groups, or the factors influencing diffusion; a particularly interesting issue is how cultural traits are modified through their diffusion, a phenomenon which includes what is commonly called “lamarckian evolution” at the level of the individuals (i.e., the heritability of individually-achieved innovations). In this multidisciplinary context, evolutionary models can be regarded as useful in that they offer manipulable prospective histories, which can in turn be employed as guidelines for restrospective reconstructions in other fields. Some fields may get cross-cut attention: geography is an example, since one of the key points of cultural diffusion is the idea that traits travel in space. A remarkable theme, however, is the existence of other spaces (e.g., the social space, the cyberspace and so on) where distance is measured in ways that are equally or more important for cultural diffusion.


· Brambilla R, Serrelli E (2016). The goals and conditions of successful interdisciplinarity. Some critical guidelines in planning, managing and evaluating interdisciplinary projects. Paradigmi. Rivista di critica filosofica 2/2016, in press. ISSN 1120-3404


This conceptual analysis calls for deeper critical reflection on the goals and conditions of interdisciplinarity. The “surplus of knowledge” expected from interdisciplinarity should be interpreted as the production of new ways of thinking, leaving recognizable traces in the involved disciplines. Particular conditions for success should be taken into account when planning and evaluating interdisciplinary endeavours: an object, a goal, regular shared practices, and the researchers’ capacities for believing in and sticking to specific attitudes. The highest goal of interdisciplinarity – the transformation of society and culture – is related to the meaning and effects of research, and to science’s placement in contemporary society.

· Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds. (2016). Understanding Cultural Traits. A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Cultural Diversity. Springer, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-319-24347-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-24349-8]


This volume constitutes a first step towards an ever-deferred interdisciplinary dialogue on cultural traits. It offers a way to enter a representative sample of the intellectual diversity that surrounds this topic, and a means to stimulate innovative avenues of research. It stimulates critical thinking and awareness in the disciplines that need to conceptualize and study culture, cultural traits, and cultural diversity. Culture is often defined and studied with an emphasis on cultural features. For UNESCO, “culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group”. But the very possibility of assuming the existence of cultural traits is not granted, and any serious evaluation of the notion of “cultural trait” requires the interrogation of several disciplines from cultural anthropology to linguistics, from psychology to sociology to musicology, and all areas of knowledge on culture. This book presents a strong multidisciplinary perspective that can help clarify the problems about cultural traits.

In collaboration with:

CISEPS – Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences, University of Milano - Bicocca, Milan, Italy

“Riccardo Massa” Department of Educational Human Sciences, University of Milano - Bicocca, Milan, Italy

· Panebianco F, Serrelli E (2016). Cultural traits and multidisciplinary dialogue. Introduction to Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds., Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Switzerland, Chapter 1. ISBN 978-3-319-24347-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-24349-8]


Every discipline poses its research questions in specific ways and thus uses concepts that are suited to find answers in its well defined disciplinary frameworks. Accordingly, the idea of cultural trait has been used and developed in several disciplines, often without any reference to each other. The result has often been non-communicability across different fields. We first show, by means of two examples, that the lack of deep interdisciplinary dialogue and reciprocal understanding has generated some harsh controversies. We argue that our book Understanding Cultural Traits: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Cultural Diversity tries to overcome not only the gap between cultural traits specialists and other scientists, but also the barriers among the researchers who are not specialists on cultural traits but that nevertheless directly or indirectly use cultural traits in their different disciplines.

· Serrelli E (2016). Removing barriers in scientific research: concepts, synthesis and catalysis. Concluding Remarks to Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds., Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-319-24347-4 [DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-24349-8]


This paper concludes a book on ‘cultural traits’ which features 20 contributions from the most diverse disciplines, from cultural anthropology to archaeology, from psychology to history, from economics to musicology. The paper dodges the attempt to make a conceptual synthesis, arguing positively for such avoidance. Borrowing a term from the U.S. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, the paper likens the book, Understanding Cultural Traits, to a catalysis meeting, i.e., a lowering of disciplinary barriers that influences the disciplines’ culture of data, broadens the scientific vision, and generates scientific collaborations. Catalysis is not alternative to synthesis. It is a different phase of scientific progress, one that can be hindered by an obsession for concepts and by an urge to close the discourse.

· Panebianco F, Serrelli E (2013). Eco-phenotypic physiologies: a new kind of modeling for unifying evolution, ecology and cultural transmission. 3-Day International Conference on Evolutionary Patterns, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal, May 27-29.


Mathematical modeling can ground communication and reciprocal enrichment among fields of knowledge whose domains are very different. We propose a new mathematical model applicable in biology, specified into ecology and evolutionary biology, and in cultural transmission studies, considered as a branch of economics. Main inspiration for the model are some biological concepts we call “eco-phenotypic” such as development, plasticity, reaction norm, phenotypic heritability, epigenetics, and niche construction. “Physiology” is a core concept we introduce and translate differently in the biological and cultural domains. The model is ecological in that it aims at describing and studying organisms and populations that perform living, intended as a thermodynamic, matter-energy process concerning resources gathering, usage, and depletion in a spatiotemporal context with given characteristics, as well as with multiplication and space occupation. The model also supports evolution, intended as a dynamics including cumulative change in the features of unique organisms that are connected into breeding populations. The model is then applicable to the economics of cultural transmission in which individuals form their attitudes and patterns of behavior under a complex system of influences derived from their “cultural parents”, other members of the society, and the environment. On the side of biology, an innovative goal is to integrate in a single model all the eco-phenotypic concepts as well as both evolution and ecology. On the side of cultural transmission, eco-phenotypic modeling seems more appropriate in capturing some aspects of cultural systems which are modeled away in the earlier framework based on Mendelian population genetics.