Cultural and linguistic diversity: evolutionary approaches


There’s a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society out on the theme of Cultural and linguistic diversity: evolutionary approaches.

From the introduction:

Evolutionary approaches to cultural change are increasingly influential, and many scientists believe that a ‘grand synthesis’ is now in sight. The papers in this Theme Issue, which derives from a sym- posium held by the AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity (University College London) in December 2008, focus on how the phylogenetic tree-building and network-based tech- niques used to estimate descent relationships in biology can be adapted to reconstruct cultural histories, where some degree of inter-societal diffusion will almost inevitably be superimposed on any deeper signal of a historical branching process.


  • On the shape and fabric of human history – Russell D. Gray, David Bryant, and Simon J. Greenhill
  • New Blog: Culture Evolves!

    … Well, new to me at least. It’s run by Fiona Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and her latest post is an interview with one of my favourite researchers, Simon Greenhill (I didn’t know he designed a sudoku solving program). Also, after having done a little digging into her publications, I found the following forthcoming paper: The effect of population size and density on rates of linguistic evolution. Here is the abstract:

    Evolutionary theory from population genetics predicts that demography may play an important role in determining the rate at which cultural and linguistic traits change over time. However, relatively few studies have explored this relationship for language at an appropriate scale and in a quantitative way, nor controlled for the problem of non-independence induced by the historical relationships between languages. Here we use phylogenetic trees of 351 Austronesian languages to test whether the rate of change in core vocabulary is affected by population size and population density. We detected a strong phylogenetic signal in both population size and density, indicating the need for historical control. We find a significant inverse relationship between lexical replacement and population size, no relationship with population density, and we confirm that splitting events influence lexical evolution. These results support the idea that a process analogous to genetic drift may be an important factor in lexical evolution. Furthermore, the strong phylogenetic signal in these demographic factors suggests that despite repeated population splits the social conditions that influence speech community size and density are maintained and inherited from one generation to the next.

    I’m not going to say anything on a paper I haven’t yet read, other than it looks pretty cool and that more people should be considering the influence of demographic factors in linguistics.

    Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania

    ResearchBlogging.orgHere is a far-reaching and crucially relevant question for those of us seeking to understand the evolution of culture: Is there any relationship between population size and tool kit diversity or complexity? This question is important because, if met with an affirmative answer, then the emergence of modern human culture may be explained by changes in population size,  rather than a species-wide cognitive explosion. Some attempts at an answer have led to models which make certain predictions about what we expect to see when populations vary. For instance, Shennan (2001) argues that in smaller populations, the number of people adopting a particular cultural variant is more likely to be affected by sampling variation. So in larger populations, learners potentially have access to a greater number of experts, which means adaptive variants are less likely to be lost by chance (Henrich, 2004).

    Models aside, and existing empirical evidence is limited with the results being mixed. I previously mentioned the gradual loss of complexity in Tasmanian tool kits after the population was isolated from mainland Australia. Elsewhere, Golden (2006) highlighted the case of isolated Polar Inuit, who lost kayaks, the bow and arrow and other technologies when their knowledgeable experts were wiped out during a plague.Yet two systematic studies (Collard et al., 2005; Read, 2008) of the Inuit case found no evidence for population size being a predictor of technological complexity.

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