Friday, March 21, 2008

Analogies between cultural and genetic evolution - the case of polynesian canoes

Rogers and Ehrlich, in an open access article, have made an important contribution to understanding cultural evolution. Here are some clips from an accompanying commentary by Stephen Shennan, followed by the article abstract. The link to the article takes you to pictures of the canoe features studied.
In the most general terms, parallel mechanisms for inheritance, mutation, selection, and drift act on culture as they do on genes...In the case of culture, the inheritance mechanism is social learning: People learn ways to think and act from others...natural selection can also act on cultural attributes, in the sense that those individuals who inherit or acquire certain cultural attributes may have a greater probability of surviving and/or reproducing than those who do not; as a result, those cultural attributes will become increasingly prevalent. For example, it is clear that, in many parts of the world, adopting an agricultural rather than a hunting-and-gathering way of life led to greater reproductive success; as a result, the cultural traits that characterize agriculture spread and, in some cases, subsequently influenced genetic evolution [e.g., the ability to digest lactose]...It is also important to look at things from what Dawkins called "the meme's eye-view," the perspective of the cultural attributes the case of the canoe attributes analyzed by Rogers and Ehrlich, these culturally transmitted features are the data that archaeologists and anthropologists have available...What Rogers and Ehrlich have done is make progress in this area by showing that variation that is believed to be under selection is patterned differently from other variation that is believed not to be under selection, or at least not in the same way. It seems to be more conservative and, therefore, under negative selection. Perhaps more surprisingly, they find that there is no correlation at all in the similarities between island groups in terms of functional canoe variation and the similarities based on symbolic variation. One might have expected some correlation, either because both would be affected by the distance between the islands, or because the process of island colonization by groups in canoes would have brought both their functional and their symbolic attributes. The fact that selection appears to have been sufficiently powerful to overwhelm evidence of descent history is extremely interesting and confirms the importance of regarding cultures not as hermetically sealed entities, a bit like species, but as bundles of distinct packages of traits affected by different forces
The Rogers and Ehrlich abstract:
It has been claimed that a meaningful theory of cultural evolution is not possible because human beliefs and behaviors do not follow predictable patterns. However, theoretical models of cultural transmission and observations of the development of societies suggest that patterns in cultural evolution do occur. Here, we analyze whether two sets of related cultural traits, one tested against the environment and the other not, evolve at different rates in the same populations. Using functional and symbolic design features for Polynesian canoes, we show that natural selection apparently slows the evolution of functional structures, whereas symbolic designs differentiate more rapidly. This finding indicates that cultural change, like genetic evolution, can follow theoretically derived patterns.

No comments:

Post a Comment