Category Archives: Talks

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.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

Upcoming talk: the cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour

I’ll be giving the following talk in the Bristol Archaeology and Anthropology Research Seminar on February 8th 2012.

To the Manor Born? The cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour in Austronesian societies. 

Cross-cultural differences in norms of land tenure may reflect both individual and population-level adaptations to ecological and social factors. A complex interplay is likely to exist between kinship practices such postmarital residence and descent, the type and division of subsistence-related labour, and the form of land ownership. Here I present work from a number of comparative studies in which we have used phylogenetic and simulation methods to disentangle the (co)evolution of these factors in the Austronesian-speaking societies of the Pacific. This framework allows us to practice “virtual archaeology” to infer past states of social norms, and to test adaptive hypotheses derived from behavioural ecology and anthropology about both the coevolution of kinship and subsistence labour, and land tenure and kinship. More broadly, I hope to demonstrate how these approaches can bring together social anthropology, population prehistory, and evolutionary theory in a new cross-cultural anthropology.

Link and info here.