Helena Miton in Nautilus:
Something about me must remind people of a blind 17th-century poet. My last name, Miton, is French, yet people outside of France invariably misspell it as “Milton”—as in the famed English author, John Milton, of the epic poem Paradise Lost. It is not uncommon for people to misspell an unfamiliar name—yet 99 times out of 100 people misspell mine as “Milton.” That is the name that shows up on everything from my university gym card to emails from colleagues. It might seem trivial, yet this misspelling actually illustrates a key feature of how cultural practices emerge and stabilize.
When studying culture, one of the key questions scientists ask is about continuity: Why do people do the same things, in roughly similar ways, over long periods of time? Consider how traditional food recipes, say tamales, have maintained a stable core definition over generations—corn-based dough cooked in corn husks.
Cognitive anthropologists such as myself try to answer this scientific question by studying how human minds interact with culture. One approach, known as cultural evolution, draws from Darwinian theory to view the evolution in longstanding cultural practices as akin to the evolution of biological species.
Most cultural evolution theorists assume that these traditions are maintained through generations by faithful transmission, or what’s known as “cultural fidelity.” Because humans are considered to be particularly adept at acquiring information through imitation, it stands to reason, they say, that we’d copy our models without mistakes. Humans, these researchers assert, inherit cultural information in the same way DNA sustains genetic information, with low rates of random mutations. Considering cultural change in this way has led cultural evolutionists to rely heavily on the subfield of population genetics—and to use models that assume cultural continuity works solely through inheritance.
Yet cultural information is not actually passed on through generations with the same degree of fidelity as genetic information.