Divergence and Reticulation in Cultural Evolution

26 Pages Posted: 29 Dec 2019

Date Written: November 27, 2019


In a recent review of articles in computational criticism Franco Moretti and Oleg Sobchuk bring up the issue of tree-like (dendriform) vs. reticular phylogenies in biology and pose the question for the form taken by the evolution of cultural objects: How is cultural information transmitted, vertically (leading to trees) or horizontally (yielding webs)? Dendriform phylogenies are particularly interesting because one can infer the phylogenetic history of an ensemble of species by examining the current state. The horizontal transmission of information in webs obscures any historical signal. I examine a few cultural examples in some detail, including jazz styles and natural language, and then take up the 3300 node graph Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis 2013) used to depict similarity relationships between 3300 19th century Anglophone novels. The graph depicts a web-like mesh of texts but, uncharacteristically of such patterns, also exhibits a strong historical signal. (Just how that is possible is the subject of another draft.)

Keywords: cultural evolution, digital humanities, evolution, literature, narrative, 19th century novel

Suggested Citation

Benzon, William L., Divergence and Reticulation in Cultural Evolution (November 27, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3500069 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3500069

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