Evolution of cultural traits occurs at similar relative rates in different world regions
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
© 2014 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
A fundamental issue in understanding human diversity is whether or not there are regular patterns and processes involved in cultural change. Theoretical and mathematical models of cultural evolution have been developed and are increasingly being used and assessed in empirical analyses. Here, we test the hypothesis that the rates of change of features of human socio-cultural organization are governed by general rules. One prediction of this hypothesis is that different cultural traits will tend to evolve at similar relative rates in different world regions, despite the unique historical backgrounds of groups inhabiting these regions. We used phylogenetic comparative methods and systematic cross-cultural data to assess how different socio-cultural traits changed in (i) island southeast Asia and the Pacific, and (ii) sub-Saharan Africa. The relative rates of change in these two regions are significantly correlated. Furthermore, cultural traits that are more directly related to external environmental conditions evolve more slowly than traits related to social structures. This is consistent with the idea that a form of purifying selection is acting with greater strength on these more environmentally linked traits. These results suggest that despite contingent historical events and the role of humans as active agents in the historical process, culture does indeed evolve in ways that can be predicted from general principles.
T.E.C. and R.M. were supported by the ERC grant, The Evolution of Cultural Norms in Real-World Settings, grant no. 249347. T.E.C. is supported by the Tricoastal Foundation Grant, The Deep Roots of the Modern World.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from the Royal Society via the DOI in this record
Vol. 281 (1795), article 20141622
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