Early accounts of stochasticity in cultural change?

I find it fascinating to think about the role of frequency in cultural change. In particular, I like the idea of “neutral change”, sometimes called “drift”, which, roughly put, predicts that the chance some cultural trait is selected/copied/transmitted is proportional to its frequency in the population.

There has been quite some recent work on the topic (see, for example, this nice paper by @alberto.acerbi, and this cool one applied to language by Henri Kauhanen). But I was wondering if some of you have some pointers to older literature on the topic. One of the oldest accounts of “cultural stochasticity” or “cultural drift” I know is the one by Binford (1963). Are there any other (even older) gems I don’t know about?



I do not know about old gems, but the classic old-ish (1995) reference in cultural evolution is this paper. I believe that there may be good pointers in the references there to older material.


To what else might selection/copying/transmission be proportional to, if not frequency? There is a growing body of work on semantic drift. A big problem e.g. in semantic change research is that frequency is actually a confounding variable, since polysemy etc. strongly correlates with word frequency.

Do you mean frequency in terms of the frequency of a phenomenon increases when it gets adopted?

1 Like

In the literature on cultural evolution (but also in biology), drift is often defined in terms of the “Wright-Fisher” model, which can be conceived of as an agent-based model in which the probability of copying a particular trait is proportional to its frequency in the population. But there are also other frequency-related selection or attraction mechanisms, such as conformist bias (in which certain traits are selected more frequently than you would expect in a neutral model) or anti-conformist bias (in which traits are selected less frequently than you would expect under stochastic drift. So, yes, frequency is important, but it comes in all kinds of flavors. :wink:

1 Like

By the way, here’s a very fresh (and, from a quick skim, very interesting) paper on the neutral models of evolution. May be interesting to the participants of this conversation :slight_smile:

1 Like

With no less than 158 references, it seems to be a pretty comprehensive overview! Thanks!


Hi @folgert! I know that you know about this (and it’s been discussed to varying extents in the papers you mention), but I figured it may be helpful for newcomers to ‘drift’ to say a few words about Sapir’s (1921) conception of drift (Chapter 7, ‘Language as a historical product: Drift’). Sapir defines drift (in the context of language change) as follows:

“The drift of a language is constituted by the unconscious selection on the part of its speakers of those individual variations that are cumulative in some special direction.” [emphasis mine]

The entire chapter gives away that Sapir really does believe the direction to be special and motivated (i.e. non-stochastic). He also talks about drift in terms of cravings and ‘sneaking’ desires a lot. I suppose you could read the passage below in terms of conformist and non-comformist biases:

“Sometimes we can feel where the drift is taking us even while we struggle against it. Probably the majority of those who read these words feel that it is quite “incorrect” to say “Who did you see?” We readers of many books are still very careful to say “Whom did you see?” but we feel a little uncomfortable (uncomfortably proud, it may be) in the process. We are likely to avoid the locution altogether and to say “Who was it you saw?” conserving literary tradition (the “whom”) with the dignity of silence. […] Even now we may go so far as to say that the majority of us are secretly wishing they could say “Who did you see?” It would be a weight off their unconscious minds if some divine authority, overruling the lifted finger of the pedagogue, gave them carte blanche. But we cannot too frankly anticipate the drift and maintain caste. We must affect ignorance of whither we are going and rest content with our mental conflict—uncomfortable conscious acceptance of the “whom,” unconscious desire for the “who.” Meanwhile we indulge our sneaking desire for the forbidden locution by the use of the “who” in certain twilight cases in which we can cover up our fault by a bit of unconscious special pleading.”

But it goes further than that. There’s a passage at the end of the chapter where he discusses the influx of French-Latinate loanwords in English as a case of ‘drift’, as if for drift to happen a language must be ‘ready’ for it:

“The English vocabulary is a rich medley because each English word wants its own castle. Has English long been peculiarly receptive to foreign words because it craves the staking out of as many word areas as possible, or, conversely, has the mechanical imposition of a flood of French and Latin loan-words, unrooted in our earlier tradition, so dulled our feeling for the possibilities of our native resources that we are allowing these to shrink by default? I suspect that both propositions are true. Each feeds on the other. I do not think it likely, however, that the borrowings in English have been as mechanical and external a process as they are generally represented to have been. There was something about the English drift as early as the period following the Norman Conquest that welcomed the new words. They were a compensation for something that was weakening within.”

My sense is that Sapir doesn’t really distinguish between why we innovate and why an innovative trait spreads (?). In any case, what I find fascinating is that a term such as ‘drift’ has found its way into the discussion of cultural change in a ‘stochastic’ and ‘non-stochastic’ sense. I wonder how that happened.

Sorry if this comment drifted off topic :wink:

1 Like