Cultural differences are often attributed to events far removed from genetics. The basis for this belief is often based on the assertion that if you take an individual, at birth, from one society and implant them in another, then they will generally grow up to become well-adjusted to their adopted culture. Whilst this is more than likely true, even if there may be certain cultural features that may disagree with someone of a different ethnic background (e.g. degrees of alcohol tolerance), the situation is not as clear cut as certain political factions may have you believe. Yet, largely due to studies on gene-culture coevolution, we are now starting to understand the complex dynamics through which genes and culture interact.
First, a particular culture may exert selection pressures on genes that provide an advantageous benefit to the adoption of a particular cultural trait. This is evident in the strong selection of the lactose-tolerance allele due to the spread of dairy farming. Second, pre-existing gene distributions provide pressures through which culture adapts. Off the top of my head, one proposed example of this is a paper by Dediu and Ladd (2007), which looked at how the distribution of the derived haplotypes of ASPM and Microcephalin may have subtly influenced the development of tonal languages. The paper in question, however, is looking more broadly at culture. Specifically, the authors, Baldwin May and Matthew Lieberman, examine recent genetic association studies and how within-variation of genes involved in central neurotransmitter systems are associated with differences in social sensitivity. In particular, they highlight a correlation between the relative frequencies of certain gene-variants and the relative degree of individualism or collectivism within certain populations.
In the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.
The study of culture, cultural evolution, gene-culture coevolution and niche construction have all received much more attention over the last decade. So it’s nice to see Nature taking on-board a fascinating review by Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee and Sean Myles about how culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. It’s really worth reading for anyone interested in the interactions between biology and culture. In particular, I was pleased to see them put forward the notion of culture having accelerated recent evolution, contra Stephen J. Gould’s claim that “there’s been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years”. Here’s the abstract:
Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.