Feb 17, 2008

Cultural Evolution and Polynesian Canoes

The process of natural selection can act on human culture as well as on genes, a new study finds. Scientists at Stanford University have shown for the first time that cultural traits affecting survival and reproduction evolve at a different rate than other cultural attributes. Speeded or slowed rates of evolution typically indicate the action of natural selection in analyses of the human genome.

This study of cultural evolution, scheduled to appear Feb. 19, in the online Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, compares the rates of change for structural and decorative Polynesian canoe-design traits.

More at Science Daily 17 February 2008
More at About.com 19 February 2008

Natural selection and cultural rates of change -- Rogers and Ehrlich, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Deborah S. Rogers and Paul R. Ehrlich


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.

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