Monday, January 18, 2010

Distinguishing a new evolutionary track?

This interesting article considers society as an evolutionary track distinct from culture and genes, noting that social and cultural units relate to different informational categories (roles versus beliefs); they are learned in different ways (experience versus interpretation), and have different accuracy and consistency requirements (necessary versus unnecessary). The authors consider cultural exaptation in footbinding, marriage form, and religious practices in early 20th-century Taiwan. (Exaptation refers to a trait evolving because it serves one particular function, but subsequently having the unintended consequence of serving another.) Their analysis notes changes in religious and grave-site rituals that were an unintended and unintuitive consequence of legally imposed changes in footbinding in southwestern Taiwan early in the century. This provides a demonstration of how associations across distinct social and cultural inheritance tracks - having different evolutionary dynamics - affect behavior. Here is the abstract:
Social theorists have long recognized that changes in social order have cultural consequences but have not been able to provide an individual-level mechanism of such effects. Explanations of human behavior have only just begun to explore the different evolutionary dynamics of social and cultural inheritance. Here we provide ethnographic evidence of how cultural evolution, at the level of individuals, can be influenced by social evolution. Sociocultural epistasis—association of cultural ideas with the hierarchical structure of social roles—influences cultural change in unexpected ways. We document the existence of cultural exaptation, where a custom's origin was not due to acceptance of the later associated ideas. A cultural exaptation can develop in the absence of a cultural idea favoring it, or even in the presence of a cultural idea against it. Such associations indicate a potentially larger role for social evolutionary dynamics in explaining individual human behavior than previously anticipated.

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