Cultural traits as units of analysis


Cultural traits have long been used in anthropology as units of transmission that ostensibly reflect behavioural characteristics of the individuals or groups exhibiting the traits. After they are transmitted, cultural traits serve as units of replication in that they can be modified as part of an individual’s cultural repertoire through processes such as recombination, loss or partial alteration within an individual’s mind. Cultural traits are analogous to genes in that organisms replicate them, but they are also replicators in their own right. No one has ever seen a unit of transmission, either behavioural or genetic, although we can observe the effects of transmission. Fortunately, such units are manifest in artefacts, features and other components of the archaeological record, and they serve as proxies for studying the transmission (and modification) of cultural traits, provided there is analytical clarity over how to define and measure the units that underlie this inheritance process.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365, 3797–3806.