Research Topic

Songs and Signs: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cultural Transmission and Inheritance in Human and Nonhuman Animals

About this Research Topic

As anthropogenic changes transform the planet, there is a contemporary urgency to elucidate cultural inheritance from a non-anthropocentric perspective. Building on an interdisciplinary two-day conference, “The Transmission of Songs in Birds, Humans, and Other Animals”**, held at Columbia University in February 2019, this Research Topic invites original research and critical commentary from any discipline that addresses some or all of the following issues:

What makes cultures persist over time? Culture is potentially more labile than biological inheritance, yet cultural practices often exhibit strong inertia, and can even impose selective pressures on biological evolution. Humans are far from the only creatures born into pre-molded worlds, as the learned vocal traditions of songbirds and whales or the gargantuan mounds of termites demonstrate. Recent work simulating cultural transmission in iterated-learning transmission chain experiments suggests that learning biases play an important role in shaping and stabilizing such diverse cultural behaviors as language and birdsong. These convergent findings are especially striking given that each link in a transmission chain (each learning iteration) presents an opportunity for innovation (cf. the broken telephone game). It is unclear, however, how such experimental findings relate to actual cultural persistence and change across generations. What do field observations of cultural evolution – in human and nonhuman animals – indicate about transmission processes and their constraints? How do social ecologies influence cultural transmission? Is “transmission” an appropriate framework for thinking about cultural continuity? If not, what alternative ways of thinking can help us understand the maintenance and reproduction of cultural practices through time?

Some possible areas of focus:
The role of learners. How do learners (e.g. children) filter and direct the transmission of culture? Where do learning biases come from? How does cultural reproduction map onto individual ontogeny and generational turnover? What social and cultural conditions yield imitation/conformity vs. improvisation/diversity?
The role of social interactions, social networks, and issues of scale. How do social interactions affect cultural transmission? How do cultural practices encode social relations? In considering the culture and its transmission, can particular cultural practices be isolated from systems of social practices? What can we say about the relationships between cultural niche construction and different types of social organization?
Methodologies. What kinds of analytical and interpretive methods are available to study the processes of cultural transmission? How should we interpret transmission chain experiments? What are the conceptual and ethical implications of our descriptions of cultural practices? Is it methodologically and theoretically appropriate to compare cultural inheritance across species, and if so, how should cultural specificity (i.e. context) be taken into account?

While we welcome submissions that consider cultural transmission through the lens of musicality, with this Research Topic we aim to initiate a comprehensive comparative-species discussion, inclusive of any form of social learning.

** https://presidentialscholars.columbia.edu/events/transmission-songs


Keywords: cultural transmission, animal traditions, birdsong, language evolution, iterated learning


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

As anthropogenic changes transform the planet, there is a contemporary urgency to elucidate cultural inheritance from a non-anthropocentric perspective. Building on an interdisciplinary two-day conference, “The Transmission of Songs in Birds, Humans, and Other Animals”**, held at Columbia University in February 2019, this Research Topic invites original research and critical commentary from any discipline that addresses some or all of the following issues:

What makes cultures persist over time? Culture is potentially more labile than biological inheritance, yet cultural practices often exhibit strong inertia, and can even impose selective pressures on biological evolution. Humans are far from the only creatures born into pre-molded worlds, as the learned vocal traditions of songbirds and whales or the gargantuan mounds of termites demonstrate. Recent work simulating cultural transmission in iterated-learning transmission chain experiments suggests that learning biases play an important role in shaping and stabilizing such diverse cultural behaviors as language and birdsong. These convergent findings are especially striking given that each link in a transmission chain (each learning iteration) presents an opportunity for innovation (cf. the broken telephone game). It is unclear, however, how such experimental findings relate to actual cultural persistence and change across generations. What do field observations of cultural evolution – in human and nonhuman animals – indicate about transmission processes and their constraints? How do social ecologies influence cultural transmission? Is “transmission” an appropriate framework for thinking about cultural continuity? If not, what alternative ways of thinking can help us understand the maintenance and reproduction of cultural practices through time?

Some possible areas of focus:
The role of learners. How do learners (e.g. children) filter and direct the transmission of culture? Where do learning biases come from? How does cultural reproduction map onto individual ontogeny and generational turnover? What social and cultural conditions yield imitation/conformity vs. improvisation/diversity?
The role of social interactions, social networks, and issues of scale. How do social interactions affect cultural transmission? How do cultural practices encode social relations? In considering the culture and its transmission, can particular cultural practices be isolated from systems of social practices? What can we say about the relationships between cultural niche construction and different types of social organization?
Methodologies. What kinds of analytical and interpretive methods are available to study the processes of cultural transmission? How should we interpret transmission chain experiments? What are the conceptual and ethical implications of our descriptions of cultural practices? Is it methodologically and theoretically appropriate to compare cultural inheritance across species, and if so, how should cultural specificity (i.e. context) be taken into account?

While we welcome submissions that consider cultural transmission through the lens of musicality, with this Research Topic we aim to initiate a comprehensive comparative-species discussion, inclusive of any form of social learning.

** https://presidentialscholars.columbia.edu/events/transmission-songs


Keywords: cultural transmission, animal traditions, birdsong, language evolution, iterated learning


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

15 October 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

15 October 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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