Researchers posit the idea that cultural knowledge practices have an inner structure that is passed down

Snow sports, with their network of limitations, are an example of tacit cultural knowledge. Credit: Sonalika Vakili/Unsplash

A wide range of cultural practices – from the construction of stone tools to the conventions of religious rituals – are very stable over long periods of time. One might assume that such persistent cultural knowledge is transmitted with very specific instructions. However, many stable cultural practices are transmitted through tacit knowledge – that kind of practical knowledge that is passed on with very limited specification.

For SFI Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow Helena Miton and SFI External Professor Simon DeDeo (Carnegie Mellon University), the transmission of tacit knowledge poses a puzzle: “How come,” asks DeDeo, “that many complex cultural practices survive unchanged for centuries, but practitioners learn them with very little information?”

In a new study published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, DeDeo and Miton have developed a new model to understand the transmission of tacit knowledge. “Cultural evolutionists often rely on models of population dynamics, which focus on individual traits,” Miton explains. “Our model embraces the idea that cultural practices actually have an inner structure that is passed on.”

Miton and DeDeo see the student of tacit knowledge as one who overcomes a network of limitations. For example, someone learning to ski downhill has to descend a snow hill, stay upright, turn, and so on. The limitations for the future skier are determined by everything from the environmental conditions to the skier’s skeleton to the laundry on the skis. With the help of a teacher, a small adjustment – leaning in – can help the learner activate a set of skills that overcome limitations and enable them to succeed in the practice.

Ultimately, Miton and DeDeo’s model captures how a small amount of information can enable the practitioner to overcome limitations and predicts “a high degree of stability over time with the transfer of minimal information,” Miton says.

On a larger time scale, the model also captures something else: when we observe the transfer of tacit knowledge, a pattern arises in which stable transfer persists for a long time, and then change in bursts occurs.

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Miton and DeDeo hope their model will provide researchers with a framework for studying a wider range of cultural practices — including those of other species — that are transmitted without words.

The rhythm of change: what a drum-beat experiment reveals about cultural evolution

More information:
Helena Miton et al, The cultural transmission of tacit knowledge, Journal of The Royal Society Interface (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2022.0238

Provided by Santa Fe Institute

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