Category Archives: Cultural Evolution

Phyloseminar: Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution

I’m giving a Phyloseminar next Tuesday at 17:00 GMT.

“Testing hypotheses about cultural evolution”

Anthropologists had a name for the non-independence-of-species-problem way back in the 1880s. Solving “Galton’s Problem”, and the promise of comparative methods for testing hypotheses about cultural adaptation and correlated evolution was a major catalyst for the field of cultural phylogenetics. In this talk I will show how linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data is used in comparative phylogenetic analyses. The “treasure trove of anthropology” – our vast ethnographic record of cultures – is now being put to good use answering questions about cross-cultural similarities and differences in human social and cultural norms in a rigorous evolutionary framework.

Phyloseminar is an online videoconferenced series of seminar talks on (you guessed it) phylogenetic subjects. Details about how connect up to join in the live broadcast and ask questions are here. Alternatively, the seminars are recorded so that, no matter your time zone, you can watch them afterwards.

My talk is the second in a mini-series of seminars on Phylogenetics and Language. The first was by Simon Greenhill, previously interviewed on my blog here. You can watch his seminar here (and please do, as I will be building on some of what Simon said). Tom Currie will be giving the final seminar. Many thanks to Erick Matsen for the invitation.

five things to update

The not-blogging-because-I’ve-not-anything-meaningful-to-say phenomena has really got to stop. Email’s become like that, too. I put it off and then it’s three months later and I feel like I have to write a mini autobiography, when really, two lines at the time would’ve been sufficient. So, in points, some interesting things of late:

1. Modern Approaches to Investigating Cultural Evolution, a LERN/CECD postgrad/postdoc workshop organised by my friend Tom Currie here at UCL. We had 13 speakers and over 40 participants discussing the latest cool research in cultural evolution. Lots of empirical stuff on linguistics (yay for data!) but also a good coverage of archaeology, psychology, economics and anthropology as well. More details including photos are at the link.

2. Rediscovering Darwin: The real story of Darwin’s finches. John van Wyhe gave the CEE Grant Lecture this year. van Wyhe has been the man behind Darwin Online, (the project to put the complete works of Darwin on the internet), and he’s an historian of science who gives an entertaining talk. This one traced the evolution of a “meme”: the persistent myth that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the Galapagos while observing the beaks of the finches. The talk did a cracking job of pulling together all the strands of the myth, how and where they originated–nice example of scientific detective work.

3. Gave a lecture for our Bio Anth Masters on Comparative Methods in Anthropology. This was my first “methods only” seminar, so it had some interactive bits, and hopefully seeded the idea that anthropologists can use phylogenetic/comparative methods for a whole range of interesting questions–not just how primates are related to each other!

4. Reviewed some papers, and cracked on with writing my own. (Interesting for me!)

5. Speaking of papers, have become more and more enamoured of Papers, a great little bit of Mac software that does what I couldn’t manage if left to my own devices: organise my PDF library. It’s a bit like iTunes for papers. The latest update has allowed for automatic matching of PDFs with their bibliographic information in the Web of Science and Google Scholar, filling the gap neatly for social sciences. Previously the automatic matching facility had only been in PubMed. You can also do full searches of databases from within the program, and set it all up so your choice of directory structure is created on your drive and each new paper filed into it. The user interface is pretty as well. Check it out.

On a more recreational note, I saw Barry Adamson and Matana Roberts at the London Jazz Festival this week. The drummer for Matana Roberts, Frank Rosaly, was phenomenal to hear and watch. Highly recommended.

“in rainbows” in anthropological context

Unless you spend your Mondays in seclusion, you’ll most likely have heard that yesterday Radiohead announced their new album, “In Rainbows” would be released in just over a week, October 10th. (If you don’t know who Radiohead are then … there really is no hope for you).

The most interesting thing about this–besides the sneak-speed announcement and timeframe for such a long-awaited album–is the method of distribution. Radiohead are currently without a record deal, and so they’ve chosen to release the album themselves via download. A variable-contribution download, which means that you choose how much you are willing to pay for it–including nothing at all.

Cue much discussion on the future of the music industry and record companies; the inherent value of music; consequences for music charts; what people are actually buying when they purchase an album, etc, etc. It is true to say that it was going to take a superstar band to do this and get the industry and public to really take notice, and it’s also true to say that what the band have done is taken control of the inevitable “leak” and subsequent “illegal” file-sharing, and done it on their own terms.

What is intriguing to me, and why I’m writing about this on my ostensibly-academic blog, is that they have set up a really fascinating social experiment, one that is not too far off the sort of thing that psychologists, economists, and anthropologists are increasingly using to understand human social behaviour: an economic game. Economic or public-goods games take some aspect of behaviour that is context-specific and examine how the interplay of private versus social factors affect the decisions we make. Famous examples include the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum game. These sorts of artificial situations are set up to try and understand why and how prosocial behaviours such as altruism, punishment, co-operation and group co-ordination can evolve. Evolutionarily-minded social scientists are intrigued by these things as often they appear to run counter to our long-term (genetic) or short-term (economic) self-interests.

Which begs the question: why would anyone in their right mind enter anything apart from £0.00 in that little box? Why, furthermore, are there people complaining about the free download, who would rather pay a tenner for a CD? Something to hold in your hands, perhaps? Hardly: CD covers, liner notes, artwork … all these things are available (free) on fansites and music sites 0.0007 seconds after an album release.

Yet people did pay money, according to their self-reports on websites and forums[1]. And people felt guilty about not paying anything … even those who by their own admission regularly download music from file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks without paying for it, or without a twinge of conscience.

What is going on here? Continue reading

working, you say?

Some days I would like to re-animate George Peter Murdock and have a beer with him. G.P., I’d say, after shaking his hand vigorously (although not too hard, because, you know, zombie corpse) G.P., you would have really liked the concept of the computer database, and maybe if you’d had one, you mighta got out for a Sunday drive or a game of darts once in a while, because how you did all this proto-spreadsheet stuff without an actual spreadsheet is admirable.

I bet he was the kind of nerd who remembered everything about the ethnographic materials he categorised, too, and would always know the Haha exception to the rule (Ah, but in Haha society they have matrilateral cross-cousin marriage AND make their tents from goatskin).

Anyhow. Endless recoding of variables according to the hypothesis under question is tedious enough. The really hard part is trying not to become swamped by overwhelming self-censure regarding categorisation and classification of complex human group behaviours. I can deal with 90% of social anthropologists disagreeing with the cross-cultural comparison approach, because the hypothesis that cultures are not to be understood except on their own internal terms is to me, simply that: an hypothesis, and one that most anthropologists have put aside testing.

Part of having an evolutionary approach to human behaviour is taking on board the notion that there are some broad patterns in human behaviour, including social life, and that one can discover those with the tools and models from evolutionary biology. Note to new readers: this does NOT mean some sort of old-fashioned sociobiology assuming a genetic/biological/essentialist/stupid nature-nurture dichotomy approach to behaviour. Traits do not have to be genetic to evolve. Boyd & Richerson have written extensively on cultural evolution for an introductory audience if you need to wrap your head around that.

Where was I? Part of the requirement involves operationalising the variables under study, so complex forms of behaviour become things such as “avunculocal postmarital residence“, which obscures a multitude of individual behaviours: those that choose other forms of residence, and those individuals that change within their lifetime. It also obscures the dynamic changes, through time, of the population as a whole.

So part of my work routine involves telling myself that folks like G.P. weren’t simply doing the ethnographic equivalent of stamp-collecting when compiling databases of cross-cultural information like the Ethnographic Atlas and the Outline of World Cultures. Those labels mean something more than they don’t mean something. And they are the best information currently (and probably that we’ll ever have) available for large-scale cross-cultural analysis.

printsetters clock + cultural bats

Wired has a nice little article on the molecular clock model being used by antiquarians to date prints/books etc. The original paper is here, describing how the properties of copperplate and woodblock degeneration (and the corresponding print quality features) can be used in a clock model to help date manuscrips. Nifty.

Also, via Afarensis (who has a cool picture), Current Biology reports that fring-lipped bats may be using social transmission mechanisms in order to learn a novel foraging behaviour (recognising frog calls as prey cues). Bats = always awesome.  

more chaucerian phylogenetics

Eagleton, C. & Spencer, M. 2006.

Copying and conflation in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the astrolabe : a stemmatic analysis using phylogenetic software. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A [link]

Chaucer’s works seem to be the focus of what one might call literary phylogenetics. This new paper uses network methods to try and unravel the lineages and relationships amongst multiple copies of his “Treatise on the Astrolabe”, a work that was copied at least 30-odd times, some in fragmentary pieces. Using NeighbourNet, the  authors construct diagrams of interelatedness, showing areas of “hybridisation” between manuscripts. They find that the scribes were diligent about creating a complete copy, and would consult other versions to fill in the gaps or verify uncertainties contained in a single exemplar. 

Other cool things in my inbox today included the ToC for PLoS Biology, which contains an article about Siphs, a community expertise-sharing forum for the life sciences. The article discusses the benefits of online databases for journal articles (less arduous time in the library) but the highlights that things like PubMed and WoS don’t actually tell you what is important, or answer your question. We have an information overload without access to expertise, and the Siphs project looks to be set up to counter that. Of course it will only succeed if individuals participate, but announcing it in PLoS is a good idea.

This information age is an exciting time in that knowledge is at our fingertips. But if we fail to innovate upon our means of accessing information, the Internet’s promise of providing us what we want will be lost as knowledge is drowned in a sea of facts. These new tools are founded upon the belief that we’re better off working together, but they work only if you think so too.

The article also linked to Connotea, which I’ve known about for a while but haven’t set up. Given how much I love the social bookmarking available at, I really have no excuse.

some original research on a hot topic

Cultural evolution really is a growing field. So there.
Fiona Jordan
Anthropology, UCL

It is extremely useful to be able to preface one’s grant application or paper introduction with a reference to the vibrant state of research in the field of cultural evolution. Of course, the truth of that sentiment has, until now, been more what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—a gut feeling of what is right—rather than being based on any empirical research. Fret no more, your hyperbolic claims are now statistically validated. Here I present the results of an arduous literature search cataloguing the state of the science over the last 30 years. It’s true: cultural evolution is the next big thing.

I used the search term “cultural evolution” in the ISI Web of Science bibliographic database for the period 1975-2005.  This 30-year period encompasses the publication of three major volumes [see references] applying evolutionary theory to culture and extends back five years previously for comparison. Also, I was born in 1975 and it seemed fortuitous. For each year, I took the total number of records containing the search term and plotted them against the year. Cumulative totals were then calculated.


Figure 1 

Figure 2
Instances of the keyword phrase “cultural evolution” clearly increase dramatically over time, accelerating in the last ten years. We may assume that the number of published works in the field is actually greater than the results suggest, as some studies might not contain that particular keyword but do meet the remit of cultural evolutionary research. A more rigorous approach would compare the citation of a neutral keyword with the trend presented here, but life is too short for that sort of malarkey.


Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Monographs in Population Biology 16.

Lumsden, C. J. & Wilson, E. O. (1981). Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

inane, sterile and pernicious!

So, mindful of the rather patchy nature of my grasp on anthropological theory, I have been dutifully skimming plowing through the RAT. Ye supernatural figures and diminutive teleosts, this book is a marvel of convoluted and exclamatory verbiage. Using jargon = teh suck.

I have found a couple of gems of anti-evolutionary sentiment, though. This is the kind of social evolutionism involving grade-scales of savagery-barbarism-civilisation, dreamt up by Morgan and Tylor and co before the Boasian-influenced relativists shook that all apart. The funny thing is that nearly a century later, some social anthropologists would (I'm sure) take the same anti-evolutionist stance towards modern cultural evolutionary theory, although they might not express it in such amusing terms.

I leave Harris's intro sentences as a fine example of his love affair with the the "-ism". 

The most splendid example of this debauchery in the ranks of the higher empiricists is that of Bertholdt Laufer. I quote in extenso, because it represents the nadir of the negativism and antiscientism which was associated with historical particularism. 

"The theory of cultural evolution, to my mind the most inane, sterile and pernicious theory ever conceived in the history of science (a cheap toy for the amusement of big children), is duly disparaged… culture cannot be forced into the straightjacket of any theory whatever it may be, nor can it be reduced to chemical or mathematical formulae. Nature has no laws, so culture has none. It is as vast and free as the ocean, throwing its waves in all directions…" [Laufer 1918] (p. 293)

I think I shouldn't be as amused as I am. Cos Nature has no laws, you know. 

perceptual thresholds in culture

Today at Culture Club [1] we discussed a recent paper by Eerkens & Lipo [link], where they present a null model of copying errors in cultural transmission. One of the notions they discuss is something I learnt a million years ago in Stage 1 Experimental Psychology: Weber's Fraction, or the Just Noticeable Difference. Interestingly, they reference the exact textbook from which I learnt psychophysics (wow, textbooks are expensive, I had forgotten!).

This made me think about what sort of "perceptual limits" there might be for complex social phenomena like kinship organisation, and where the JND might lie in scales of difference in (for example) inheritance. What would be the so-called "tipping point" for a formerly matrilineal system to start adopting as a norm a system of bilateral inheritance? What might the units to examine be? It struck me that this is possibly a way to get at some thorny "units of culture" questions, although it is beyond the scope of what I'm doing at present. But it would be so very nice to have some sort of null model that might group perceptually-bounded culture concepts together.

[1] Our weekly journal club/discussion meeting for the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity

please leave a msg, the aliens are on myspace

Geoffrey Miller writes in SEED Magazine about Why We Haven't Met Any Aliens.

Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot.

According to GM, the best and brightest minds get seduced by fancy entertainment technologies that mimic our evolutionary go-to impulses: fast-food, porn, iPods. There'll be no-one left to run NASA, and maybe–like the aliens–there'll just be no-one left.

Uh, I don't think so. As a bright spark in our discussion group said, Miller deflates his own argument later on:

Some individuals and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism.

That is, natural variation will contain strategies that will outcompete the Sims-addicted entertainment-happy phenotypes. This happens to me all the time because other people read journal articles when I read Batman. 

It's provoking, this piece, and I suspect not entirely serious–although the last remarks concerning the rise of  fundamentalism(s) need to be unpacked with respect to evolutionary motivations ALSO. I do like the term "creative class", but it irks me because it comes from a place of privilege. Someone's gotta be out there running the hamster wheel that makes the internet go. Someone's soldering the chip in your VR goggles. And that someone will quite likely be more than motivated to take your place in the great quest for knowledge if you're just slouched on the couch.