Cultural evolution studies are characterized by the notion that culture evolves accordingly to broadly Darwinian principles. Yet how far the analogy be- tween cultural and genetic evolution should be pushed is open to debate. Here, we examine a recent disagreement that concerns the extent to which cultural trans- mission should be considered a preservative mechanism allowing selection among different variants, or a transformative process in which individuals recreate variants each time they are transmitted. The latter is associated with the notion of “cultural attraction”. This issue has generated much misunderstanding and confusion. We first clarify the respective positions, noting that there is in fact no substantive incompatibility between cultural attraction and standard cultural evolution ap- proaches, beyond a difference in focus. Whether cultural transmission should be considered a preservative or reconstructive process is ultimately an empirical question, and we examine how both preservative and reconstructive cultural transmission has been studied in recent experimental research in cultural evolution. Finally, we discuss how the relative importance of preservative and reconstructive processes may depend on the granularity of analysis and the domain being studied.
Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci discussed this article in The Trouble with Cultural Evolution, Footnotes to Plato.