Cultural Evolution Round Up

I have not been the biggest fan of cultural evolution research—treating culture in too biological a fashion, a lot of theory without a lot of mechanism, not enough consideration of the brain, difficulties with ideas about progress and direction. But the field has slowly advanced, and there has been some interesting blogging and research lately.

I also think cultural evolution, done right, has direct implications for how to think about neuroanthropology. If brain and culture interact (with camping caveats), then how they came to interact plays a central role in understanding neuroanthropological dynamics. So, with that brief introduction, here’s the latest topical round up.

Canoe Design

Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich, Natural Selection and Cultural Rates of Change
Open access article from PNAS on how the functional and aesthetic design of Polynesian canoes change at different rates. Basically Rogers & Ehrlich arguing that the functional parts (i.e., that interact more significantly with the environment) go through stabilizing selection and thus are more conserved, while aesthetic aspects tend to get elaborated locally and exhibit faster rates of change.

For those of you looking for something briefer, here’s the overview in the press release, which also includes praise from Jared Diamond and Nina Jablonksi.

John Skoyles had his critical response published in PNAS, but without open access, so here’s Anthropology.Net discussing Skoyles’ reaction to the Rogers & Ehrlich article.

For additional commentary, see Gene Expression and Anthropology.Net’s initial reaction to proposals about canoe design and natural selection.

And don’t forget Malinowski’s original chapter on Polynesian canoes!

Projectile Points

R. Lee Lyman and colleagues have a Journal of Archaeological Science article entitled “Variation in North American dart points and arrow points when one or both are present.”
The paper argues that projectile points are subjected to experimentation and selection, and thus an optimizing design. For the press release, click here.

Anthropology.Net in Culture Does, In Fact, Optimize provides a good and generally positive overview.

Afarensis, who first noticed the article, followed up with a long consideration in Return of the Projectile Point, bringing in lots of relevant research. He also provided some more background on the work by Dr. Lyman, who answered questions that Afarensis had.

The most critical reaction came from Aardvarchaeology, who argues that Culture Does Not Optimize. Lots of discussion ensued.


Anthropology.Net gives us some broad considerations in two pieces, More on Cultural Evolution and Can There Be a Synthesis between Biological and Cultural Evolution? For overview and links, a good place to start.

Paul Ehrlich, Cultural Evolution
An argument that culture evolves via natural selection by the noted biologist. This piece appears in Seed Magazine.

Paul Ehrlich and Carl Zimmer Discuss Cultural Evolution
Blogging Heads TV gives us the discussion between the biologist and the science journalist, building off Ehrlich’s recent book The Dominant Animal. They discuss a wide range of topics, given Ehrlich’s interest in ecology and his best-known book The Population Bomb.
So here are some relevant pieces: The overrated idea of the meme; Why the study of culture needs its own Darwin; and What are people for and what they want.

Gene Expression, History Dynamics and Contingent Conditions of Religion
A long post on dynamics of historical change, for example, that “the rate of [religious] conversion is proportional to the number of converts, and the result is a logistic curve over time.” Razib is both receptive and critical, and includes a wealth of historical considerations

Anthropology.Net, Michael Tomasello on How Humans Are Unique
Covers the psychologist’s argument about the role of special social skills in humans that make cultural evolution possible. Based on comparative work with primates and young children.

KLI Theory Lab, Cultural Evolution
Brief outline of cultural evolution work, including bibliography, journals, and institute resources


Anthropology.Net, Simulated Linguistic Evolution In The Laboratory
Simon Kirby and testing linguistic evolution in the lab

Babel’s Dawn, Speech’s Stabilizing Forces
Thinking about the early evolution of speech—macroscopic stability through microscopic behaviors

Linguistic Anthropology, Punctuated Language Evolution and Quantifying Lexical Change
Two posts covering recent research on language evolution in one handy click

Language Log, What’s In a Generation or Two?
Derek Bickerton discusses language change, with links to earlier posts on the topic included

John Whitfield, Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution
A PLoS Biology piece providing a nice discussion of recent research and ideas on language evolution

Papers on Cultural Evolution

Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, Culture and the Evolution of Human Social Instincts
Recent chapter by two leaders in cultural evolution research. For more online papers, go to Rob Boyd’s and Peter Richerson’s sites.

Joseph Henrich et al., Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution
Lays out the argument for a Darwinian approach to culture in this article written with Boyd and Richerson. For more of Henrich’s work, see his website.

Alex Mesoudi et al., Toward a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution
2005 BBS article arguing that “human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties” With BBS, you get lots of great commentary, so check out the reactions as well!

Ruth Mace, On the Use of Phylogenetic Comparative Methods to Test Co-Evolutionary Hypotheses across Cultures
A large pdf of Mace’s chapter in her co-edited volume on The Evolution of Cultural Diversity. Phylogenetic methods will be central to developing effective research on cultural change and co-evolutionary processes. Random forests are another method that could prove useful.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Cultural Evolution
Good overview of theoretical work done on cultural evolution.


Seed Magazine, Interview with Lambros Malafouris
Neuroarchaeologist challenges the prevailing biological-cultural split in most research on cultural evolution, and aims to bring cultural and neural plasticity together.
You can download a pdf chapter by Lambros Malafouris, The Cognitive Basis of Material Engagement: Where Body, Brain and Culture Conflate.
And here’s the abstract for a recent paper, Between Brains, Bodies and Things: Tectonoetic Awareness and the Extended Self.

Colin Renfrew et al., Introduction: The Sapient Mind: Archaeology Meets Neuroscience
Online introduction to an entire Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Biology B issue on neuroarchaeology.

John Brockton, Interview with Colin Renfrew
An Edge interview with the Cambridge archaeologist

Merlin Donald, Selected Publications.
The psychologist become cognitive archaeologist—here are a large sample of his recent articles and chapters. These include an interview outlining his views on how human evolution moved from embodiment to enculturation; the virtues of rigorous interdisciplinarity; and hominid enculturation and cognitive evolution.

Human Evolution

Nancy Shute, Where Is Human Evolution Heading?
Our “DNA is changing faster than ever; what it means for our descendants”

Guy Gugliotta, The Great Human Migration
The rise and expansion of modern humans covered in a Smithsonian article

American Museum of Natural History, Spitzer Hall of Human Origins
Accessible overview of many facets of human evolution

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