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PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e43807. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043807. Epub 2012 Aug 23.

Cultural evolution and perpetuation of arbitrary communicative conventions in experimental microsocieties.

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Psychology, School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, United Kingdom.


Previous studies have shown that iconic graphical signs can evolve into symbols through repeated usage within dyads and interacting communities. Here we investigate the evolution of graphical signs over chains of participants. In these chains (or "replacement microsocieties"), membership of an interacting group changed repeatedly such that the most experienced members were continually replaced by naïve participants. Signs rapidly became symbolic, such that they were mutually incomprehensible across experienced members of different chains, and new entrants needed to learn conventionalised meanings. An objective measure of graphical complexity (perimetric complexity) showed that the signs used within the microsocieties were becoming progressively simplified over successive usage. This is the first study to show that the signs that evolve in graphical communication experiments can be transmitted to, and spontaneously adopted by, naïve participants. This provides critical support for the view that human communicative symbols could have evolved culturally from iconic representations.

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