What’s more important in storytelling: the teller or the tale?

In the beginning times, Taka and her younger brother Toro were rowing through a storm and crashed upon a rocky island in the sea. Taka stepped ashore and the sharp rocks cut her feet. Everywhere her blood touched, life sprung forth. The grasses and the trees took root and the people, our ancestors, arose from the drops of blood.

If I tell you a story, what will you remember? Will it be the social interactions that stick in your mind? The tricks for survival, the moral lessons—or the strange talking animals?

Will you remember more of the story if you hear it in a West Country British English accent, an Inland South American English accent, or from an “upper-class” BBC English speaker? 

In our Evolutionary Human Sciences paper we tried to answer this question. What matters more: the tale or the teller? In Prestige and content biases together shape the cultural transmission of narratives, Ricky Berl and Alarna Samarasinghe (PhD students then, now fully-fledged Drs), together with Sean Roberts, Michael Gavin, and I—used storytelling and re-telling as a means to address the interactions of content and context biases in cultural transmission.

Cultural evolution researchers who are interested in how information is transmitted between individuals theorise that there are a suite of social learning biases that can influence the ways in which aspects of culture are transmitted. Simply put, not all information has an equal chance of being transmitted from one person to another. Content biases are psychological preferences for certain types of information: social information like gossip, for example, or a bias towards counter-intuitive phenomena, like talking birds. Context biases, particularly model-based biases, refer to a bias for preferential learning from certain sources: people like ourselves, for example, or people with high prestige.

In our study, we were interested in how the prestige of the “model” (the storyteller) might interact with the content of the information to be passed on (the tale). Prestige is a very hard concept to study experimentally, because you can’t easily manipulate individuals to be prestigious (or not) to all of your study participants. Luckily, some of our team’s research interests are in evolutionary linguistics and linguistic anthropology, and we were influenced by work in sociolinguistics on accent prestige. While individuals do differ in their own judgements, national ratings of accent qualities such as prestige, friendliness, and trustworthiness can be remarkably consistent. 

In a couple of run-up studies, we surveyed the perceived qualities of a range of British and American English accents, and we developed a scale for assessing prestige based on accent information. We could then present stories to listeners (in the UK and the USA) in different accents that were locally-calibrated on measures of prestige. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been that much interaction between sociolinguistics and cultural evolution—odd, because researchers in both traditions are interested in the small-scale social interactions that affect the ways language and culture change over time! So we hope our study goes a little way towards inspiring more cross-over interactions between these fields.

Placing his fingers in his mouth, Toro blew a whistle so piercing that Puna fell from her perch in terror. From out of the jungle came a mass of red ants.

“Why do you call us?” they demanded in their many tiny voices.

“I am building a new island,” Toro announced, “And if you help me you can be the first to live there and can take the best homes for yourselves.”

So what did people hear in these accents? We presented people with creation narratives: stories telling the origins of people and places. Anthropologists and folklorists have collated and recorded creation stories from all over the world, and as part of our study we coded existing creation stories for the kinds of social learning biases that were present, as a baseline. But for our experiment, we commissioned a writer to create culturally non-specific stories. We wanted our participants to be unfamiliar with the stories, and we also felt it was important not to appropriate important cultural knowledge from indigenous communities. 

One story tells of Taka and Toro, two jealous seafaring siblings, and their competition over the friendship of the peoples that they created on different islands [read] [listen]. The other story explains how the actions of Muki, a child abandoned by its parents, shaped a rugged landscape and the varieties of life-forms that come into being [read] [listen]. The wonderful illustrations in this blog post are by Helen Spence-Jones (she takes commissions!).

In the beginning times, Mata and Pata had run away together from the place of their people, far away beyond the realm of the sky, farther away than the stars stretch. The elder ones had not approved of their marriage and so they fled to our world here, which was then only a vast plain. They had with them their Child, Muki, who was the source of their greatest joys.

Each of the stories was carefully constructed to have proportions of content that matched our ethnographic baseline, that is, numbers of propositions that reflected so-called biases for social, survival, moral, emotional, rational, and counter-intuitive information. Then, we had speakers with different accents read and record the stories. 

Participants from both the UK and the USA heard each story, one in a low- and one in a high-prestige accent. They then gave their best effort to re-tell them orally, with a clever online recording set-up. We transcribed these re-tellings, coded them for the content biases, and analysed what propositions were recalled as a function of accent prestige and a host of listener characteristics. This was an absolutely mammoth task, shouldered for the largest part by Ricky and Alarna, who can now recite those stories in their sleep! We’ve made all the transcripts available on the Open Science Framework site, and we hope they will be a wonderful rich resource for others to analyse with a host of different approaches.

Muki grabbed fists full of clay and scraped out steep valleys in the land. The Child’s tantrum churned up the hills as her kicking heels pounded in the earth. Her blood stained the clay, giving life, and she cried huge tears that became the Great River.

What did we expect to see? Back in 2013 when Mike Gavin and I were first discussing this idea, we thought it might be quite simple: we’d expect more recall overall when hearing a tale from a prestigious teller, but maybe we might see some interesting interactions with content. But we had no fixed colours to nail to the mast, or point to prove on any particular social learning bias. The important contribution was our study design, which allowed us to look at the interaction between content and models more intricately than had been done before, and which brought a real-world validity to the concept of prestige by using locally-calibrated accents.

The first finding was just how little people recalled: on average, only about 14% of the propositions in the stories. Perhaps that’s unfair, though. While listeners did know they’d be asked to recall a story, they only heard it once, and it was unfamiliar to them. People varied on overall recall, as you’d expect, but the variation had few predictors beyond a measure of working memory (you can see this in Fig 3 of the paper, below). So, if we were to do this again, one thing to vary would be the number of times people heard the story. It wasn’t practical to do this as a “live” transmission chain, but if that was possible, we could reflect a real-world storytelling environment more closely. 

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably on the edge of your seat for the punchline—what is it? Prestige of teller’s accent? Or content biases in the tale?

It’s complicated (sorry!) 

The prestige condition did not predict overall recall, so there’s no simple story. So asking your friend with a particular accent to record your lecture notes for revision purposes probably won’t work (for prestige reasons. It might work for other reasons!). In Figure 2 from the paper, you can also see that there’s no difference between high and low prestige accents for most  of the content biases, so there are no clear patterns there.

Figure 2

However, we did find that prestige impacted the recall of basic social information and “unbiased information”, that is, propositions in the stories without particular types of content predicted by theory. We then analysed a range of predictive models that included different combinations of story-based effects, the prestige condition, the presence or absence of each content bias, and participant demographics. Figure 3 shows those effects that had a positive or negative effect on recall. A number of the content biases had significant effects (odds ratios above 1): counterintuitive (biological violations), negative emotional, social, and survival biases. For a description of each of these biases, and examples, see Table 1 in the paper. Prestige had a significant effect, but this was smaller than the content. For these kinds of stories at least, some content is reliably sticky—and prestige gives listeners a leg-up as a recall strategy if the content isn’t “biased”.

Figure 3

There’s a lot more to say, both about the work presented in the paper and the project’s approach in general, but I’m in danger of repeating the paper (do go read it and ask questions!). Despite our original simple idea (“let’s use accent prestige as a nice real-world proxy, and test content and context biases together!”) it’s fair to say that this was much harder—conceptually, logistically, and in interpretation—than we originally expected. Creation stories presented a fantastic opportunity to test as many content biases as possible, but a challenge on the other hand, because creation narratives are relatively “low-stakes” for listeners and may be best suited to testing model familiarity biases (i.e. we might expect to hear such stories in familiar voices: we address this in the paper). 

As well, with hindsight I think we all wish we could have predicted the pandemic and looked at health messaging with this set-up. But hopefully others will take up the accent-prestige paradigm and use it fruitfully on all sorts of information-transmission domains! And we strongly encourage other researchers to avail themselves of the data we collected from all of our participant storytellers—there are some lovely gems in there, and we’re very grateful to all our participants.

Then out of the clay came our people, those who are our ancestors, because the land around Muki was good and fertile. The Child called Muki became the mountain that protects our village. We knew then as we do today that the Child must never be alone again, and we wait for Mata and Pata to return for her.




Varikin Findings: There are no universals in the cultural evolution of kinship terminology

There is huge potential for variation between kinship terminology (systems of words for relatives) cross-culturally. In fact, for a set of 16 relatives, there are 10,480,142,147 theoretically possible ways to categorise them. Given the potential for effectively unbridled variation in kinship terminology, observed diversity seems remarkably constrained, and has previously been categorised into six key types (see Fig. 1). Each type has been hypothesised to align with particular cultural norms of descent, marriage or residence patterns, and it was thought that these social systems acted as drivers of the variation and change of kinship terminology. However, since these conclusions were reached, there have been significant improvements in data and statistics. Will they still stand up when tested using more modern methods?

VariKin members Sam Passmore and Fiona Jordan’s 2020 publication No universals in the cultural evolution of kinship terminology put this to the test. They used phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) to explore the cultural evolutionary patterns of kinship terminology diversity, particularly testing so-called drivers of change such as marriage, residence and descent. This study marks the first cross-language-family phylogenetic analysis of the drivers of kinship terminology and investigates the Austronesian, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan language families (selected due to their large size and cultural data availability). In the study, they found no evidence for previously assumed universal drivers of evolution in kinship terminologies, because no presumed universal relationship linking kinship terminology and social structure was supported across all language families. This is not because one or two societies do not follow a trend: for most of the hypotheses tested, they could not conservatively even claim ‘statistical regularity’.

However, rather than assume that the lack of statistical relationship between kinship terminology types and social structure indicates no functional relationship, the authors suggest that the typology might misrepresent kinship terminological diversity by being too crude a characterisation. This raises the important question of how well existing typologies represent known diversity, and the results from this particular study – which was always an integral investigation of the VariKin Project – have helped to clear the ground for more detailed characterisations of kinship organisation in future. For example, as stated in the publication, the creation of the “Kinbank” database as part of the VariKin project will allow us to more realistically characterise types and patterns of change in kinterms without built-in assumptions of the influence from social structure.

VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

— by Maisie Ford

Language is constantly changing. As new words are born or enter a language, old words fall out of use. Linguists have known for a long time that some words endure longer than others. Some core vocabulary, like numbers, names of common animals/plants, and words for parts of the body can be thousands of years old and still in use. This intuition was put to the test by Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkinson, and Andrew Meade in their 2007 paper, Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Using language corpora (large collections of transcribed speech or collected text), and phylogenetic comparative methods, they found that more frequently used words from the core vocabulary are replaced at a slower rate in European languages.

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

But why is this? Do often-used words leave a stronger imprint in our minds and are therefore less likely to be lost? Or is it that large scale conceptual or social changes relating to how we think and talk about the world around us are more likely to displace words that are used less often?

VariKin team members Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore (lead authors), Catherine Sheard and Fiona Jordan explored this very question with kinship words in their open-access paper, “Usage frequency and lexical class determine the evolution of kinship terms in Indo-European”, published in Royal Society Open Science in October 2019.

Péter collected large-scale language corpora across 47 Indo-European languages, so as to determine the frequency of use of terms for family and kin. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, Sam modelled how fast kinship words are replaced in these languages. Kinship terms are not just single linguistic labels for individuals, because multiple relatives can be called by the same term such as “cousin” in English, or “tante” (aunt, in French). Kin terms form systems, and multiple terms shift together when one system is replaced with another one through social or cultural changes. VariKin team members explore this aspect in some of their other papers:

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

In the present paper, the team found that, as with core vocabulary, the most frequently used kinship terms are replaced more slowly over time. In fact, the relationship between rate of replacement and frequency of use was found to be even stronger in kinship terminology than in core vocabulary in general. This is hypothesised to be due to the fact that kinship words, in every language, constitute a closed lexical class, which suggests that the reason more frequent words are more resilient is not that they are more memorable. Rather it is that they are less likely to be affected by complex conceptual changes in language. Terms for ‘mother’ or ‘father’ last for thousands of years!

The findings shed further light on how language change is related to language use.  It also adds to what we know about the ways in which evolutionary parallels exist in biology and culture (we know that genes involved in multiple functions change more slowly), and informs debates on dynamics of change in linguistics and complex systems theory in general.

Watch this space for an interview coming soon with Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore in which we discuss this paper further. We will be posting these summaries of papers from the VariKin project over the next few months as the project winds up.

D-PLACE crew in Fort Collins

I’m at the winter meeting of the D-PLACE team this week! We’re in Fort Collins, Colorado, being hosted by Mike Gavin, one of the PIs on the database project. D-PLACE is the Database of Places, Language, Culture, and Ecology. It brings together cultural data with linguistic phylogenies and environmental data so that scholars interested in explaining human cultural diversity can take the field forward. We’re hoping the database will be released in the next couple of months. About half the team is here, along with the two PhD students in the Transmission project.

D-PLACE + Transmission in Fort Collins. L-R: Ricky Berl, Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Kate Kirby, Damian Blasi, Stephanie Gomez-Ng, Fiona Jordan, Carol Ember, Russell Gray, Alarna Samarasinghe, Mike Gavin.

Phyloseminar: Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution

I’m giving a Phyloseminar next Tuesday at 17:00 GMT.

“Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution”

Anthropologists had a name for the non-independence-of-species-problem way back in the 1880s. Solving “Galton’s Problem”, and the promise of comparative methods for testing hypotheses about cultural adaptation and correlated evolution was a major catalyst for the field of cultural phylogenetics. In this talk I will show how linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data is used in comparative phylogenetic analyses. The “treasure trove of anthropology” – our vast ethnographic record of cultures – is now being put to good use answering questions about cross-cultural similarities and differences in human social and cultural norms in a rigorous evolutionary framework.

Phyloseminar is an online videoconferenced series of seminar talks on (you guessed it) phylogenetic subjects. Details about how connect up to join in the live broadcast and ask questions are here. Alternatively, the seminars are recorded so that, no matter your time zone, you can watch them afterwards.

My talk is the second in a mini-series of seminars on Phylogenetics and Language. The first was by Simon Greenhill, previously interviewed on my blog here. You can watch his seminar here (and please do, as I will be building on some of what Simon said). Tom Currie will be giving the final seminar. Many thanks to Erick Matsen for the invitation.

five things to update

The not-blogging-because-I’ve-not-anything-meaningful-to-say phenomena has really got to stop. Email’s become like that, too. I put it off and then it’s three months later and I feel like I have to write a mini autobiography, when really, two lines at the time would’ve been sufficient. So, in points, some interesting things of late:

1. Modern Approaches to Investigating Cultural Evolution, a LERN/CECD postgrad/postdoc workshop organised by my friend Tom Currie here at UCL. We had 13 speakers and over 40 participants discussing the latest cool research in cultural evolution. Lots of empirical stuff on linguistics (yay for data!) but also a good coverage of archaeology, psychology, economics and anthropology as well. More details including photos are at the link.

2. Rediscovering Darwin: The real story of Darwin’s finches. John van Wyhe gave the CEE Grant Lecture this year. van Wyhe has been the man behind Darwin Online, (the project to put the complete works of Darwin on the internet), and he’s an historian of science who gives an entertaining talk. This one traced the evolution of a “meme”: the persistent myth that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the Galapagos while observing the beaks of the finches. The talk did a cracking job of pulling together all the strands of the myth, how and where they originated–nice example of scientific detective work.

3. Gave a lecture for our Bio Anth Masters on Comparative Methods in Anthropology. This was my first “methods only” seminar, so it had some interactive bits, and hopefully seeded the idea that anthropologists can use phylogenetic/comparative methods for a whole range of interesting questions–not just how primates are related to each other!

4. Reviewed some papers, and cracked on with writing my own. (Interesting for me!)

5. Speaking of papers, have become more and more enamoured of Papers, a great little bit of Mac software that does what I couldn’t manage if left to my own devices: organise my PDF library. It’s a bit like iTunes for papers. The latest update has allowed for automatic matching of PDFs with their bibliographic information in the Web of Science and Google Scholar, filling the gap neatly for social sciences. Previously the automatic matching facility had only been in PubMed. You can also do full searches of databases from within the program, and set it all up so your choice of directory structure is created on your drive and each new paper filed into it. The user interface is pretty as well. Check it out.

On a more recreational note, I saw Barry Adamson and Matana Roberts at the London Jazz Festival this week. The drummer for Matana Roberts, Frank Rosaly, was phenomenal to hear and watch. Highly recommended.

“in rainbows” in anthropological context

Unless you spend your Mondays in seclusion, you’ll most likely have heard that yesterday Radiohead announced their new album, “In Rainbows” would be released in just over a week, October 10th. (If you don’t know who Radiohead are then … there really is no hope for you).

The most interesting thing about this–besides the sneak-speed announcement and timeframe for such a long-awaited album–is the method of distribution. Radiohead are currently without a record deal, and so they’ve chosen to release the album themselves via download. A variable-contribution download, which means that you choose how much you are willing to pay for it–including nothing at all.

Cue much discussion on the future of the music industry and record companies; the inherent value of music; consequences for music charts; what people are actually buying when they purchase an album, etc, etc. It is true to say that it was going to take a superstar band to do this and get the industry and public to really take notice, and it’s also true to say that what the band have done is taken control of the inevitable “leak” and subsequent “illegal” file-sharing, and done it on their own terms.

What is intriguing to me, and why I’m writing about this on my ostensibly-academic blog, is that they have set up a really fascinating social experiment, one that is not too far off the sort of thing that psychologists, economists, and anthropologists are increasingly using to understand human social behaviour: an economic game. Economic or public-goods games take some aspect of behaviour that is context-specific and examine how the interplay of private versus social factors affect the decisions we make. Famous examples include the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum game. These sorts of artificial situations are set up to try and understand why and how prosocial behaviours such as altruism, punishment, co-operation and group co-ordination can evolve. Evolutionarily-minded social scientists are intrigued by these things as often they appear to run counter to our long-term (genetic) or short-term (economic) self-interests.

Which begs the question: why would anyone in their right mind enter anything apart from £0.00 in that little box? Why, furthermore, are there people complaining about the free download, who would rather pay a tenner for a CD? Something to hold in your hands, perhaps? Hardly: CD covers, liner notes, artwork … all these things are available (free) on fansites and music sites 0.0007 seconds after an album release.

Yet people did pay money, according to their self-reports on websites and forums[1]. And people felt guilty about not paying anything … even those who by their own admission regularly download music from file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks without paying for it, or without a twinge of conscience.

What is going on here? Continue reading →

working, you say?

Some days I would like to re-animate George Peter Murdock and have a beer with him. G.P., I’d say, after shaking his hand vigorously (although not too hard, because, you know, zombie corpse) G.P., you would have really liked the concept of the computer database, and maybe if you’d had one, you mighta got out for a Sunday drive or a game of darts once in a while, because how you did all this proto-spreadsheet stuff without an actual spreadsheet is admirable.

I bet he was the kind of nerd who remembered everything about the ethnographic materials he categorised, too, and would always know the Haha exception to the rule (Ah, but in Haha society they have matrilateral cross-cousin marriage AND make their tents from goatskin).

Anyhow. Endless recoding of variables according to the hypothesis under question is tedious enough. The really hard part is trying not to become swamped by overwhelming self-censure regarding categorisation and classification of complex human group behaviours. I can deal with 90% of social anthropologists disagreeing with the cross-cultural comparison approach, because the hypothesis that cultures are not to be understood except on their own internal terms is to me, simply that: an hypothesis, and one that most anthropologists have put aside testing.

Part of having an evolutionary approach to human behaviour is taking on board the notion that there are some broad patterns in human behaviour, including social life, and that one can discover those with the tools and models from evolutionary biology. Note to new readers: this does NOT mean some sort of old-fashioned sociobiology assuming a genetic/biological/essentialist/stupid nature-nurture dichotomy approach to behaviour. Traits do not have to be genetic to evolve. Boyd & Richerson have written extensively on cultural evolution for an introductory audience if you need to wrap your head around that.

Where was I? Part of the requirement involves operationalising the variables under study, so complex forms of behaviour become things such as “avunculocal postmarital residence“, which obscures a multitude of individual behaviours: those that choose other forms of residence, and those individuals that change within their lifetime. It also obscures the dynamic changes, through time, of the population as a whole.

So part of my work routine involves telling myself that folks like G.P. weren’t simply doing the ethnographic equivalent of stamp-collecting when compiling databases of cross-cultural information like the Ethnographic Atlas and the Outline of World Cultures. Those labels mean something more than they don’t mean something. And they are the best information currently (and probably that we’ll ever have) available for large-scale cross-cultural analysis.

printsetters clock + cultural bats

Wired has a nice little article on the molecular clock model being used by antiquarians to date prints/books etc. The original paper is here, describing how the properties of copperplate and woodblock degeneration (and the corresponding print quality features) can be used in a clock model to help date manuscrips. Nifty.

Also, via Afarensis (who has a cool picture), Current Biology reports that fring-lipped bats may be using social transmission mechanisms in order to learn a novel foraging behaviour (recognising frog calls as prey cues). Bats = always awesome.  

more chaucerian phylogenetics

Eagleton, C. & Spencer, M. 2006.

Copying and conflation in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the astrolabe : a stemmatic analysis using phylogenetic software. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A [link]

Chaucer’s works seem to be the focus of what one might call literary phylogenetics. This new paper uses network methods to try and unravel the lineages and relationships amongst multiple copies of his “Treatise on the Astrolabe”, a work that was copied at least 30-odd times, some in fragmentary pieces. Using NeighbourNet, the  authors construct diagrams of interelatedness, showing areas of “hybridisation” between manuscripts. They find that the scribes were diligent about creating a complete copy, and would consult other versions to fill in the gaps or verify uncertainties contained in a single exemplar. 

Other cool things in my inbox today included the ToC for PLoS Biology, which contains an article about Siphs, a community expertise-sharing forum for the life sciences. The article discusses the benefits of online databases for journal articles (less arduous time in the library) but the highlights that things like PubMed and WoS don’t actually tell you what is important, or answer your question. We have an information overload without access to expertise, and the Siphs project looks to be set up to counter that. Of course it will only succeed if individuals participate, but announcing it in PLoS is a good idea.

This information age is an exciting time in that knowledge is at our fingertips. But if we fail to innovate upon our means of accessing information, the Internet’s promise of providing us what we want will be lost as knowledge is drowned in a sea of facts. These new tools are founded upon the belief that we’re better off working together, but they work only if you think so too.

The article also linked to Connotea, which I’ve known about for a while but haven’t set up. Given how much I love the social bookmarking available at del.icio.us, I really have no excuse.