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Reconstructing Cultural Transmission and Evolution through Genetic Models

Anne-Catherine Schaaf, Augusta Holyfield, Natalie DiMattia, Luke Giuntoli, and Sophia Sarro

The College of the Holy Cross

We are examining diverse corpora of manuscripts, with an initial focus on manuscripts of the Iliad and Latin music manuscripts, to understand how their textual and paratextual content have been transmitted and have evolved throughout time.  In many fundamental ways, the transmission of cultural information, like historical manuscripts and music notation, is analogous to biological evolution where species and characteristics change through time. Evolutionary biologists have developed probabilistic models of change through time to infer relatedness among species and reconstruct the ancestral condition of characteristics. In this project, we can employ the models used by evolutionary biologists to examine the evolution or change through time of historical manuscripts (species) and their composite parts (characteristics). Utilizing interdisciplinary models from classics and biology, we will integrate computational methods for characterizing digital text corpora in genetic models of evolutionary change. We will additionally compare generic models for assessing similarity of any text to corpus specific models. This transdisciplinary work is similar to research recently published in the article “The Pace of Modern Culture” published in Nature, but extends it by developing and applying richer models, for example text vectors and n-grams, for assessing "similarity" of documents with a final hypothesis as to how these texts may be related. Additionally, two of the presenters will be co-teaching a course in Spring 2021 entitled Change Through Time. Part of the project is to develop materials for the course and their fellow researchers will be potential applicants for teaching assistant positions.

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