Experiments in cultural transmission and human cultural evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgFor those of you familiar with the formal mathematical models of cultural evolution (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Boyd & Richerson, 1985), you’ll know there is a substantive body of literature behind the process of cultural transmission. It comes as a surprise, then, that experiments in this area are generally lacking.

For instance, if we look at evolutionary biology, then there are many experiments into small-scale microevolutionary processes, such as natural selection, sexual selection, mutation and drift, which are then applied in showing how these processes generate population-level, macroevolutionary patterns. It follows then, that this sort of population-level thinking can be applied to cultural evolution: the forces and biases of cultural transmission can be studied experimentally to see if they fit with population-level patterns of cultural change documented by scientists. As the current paper by Mesoudi & Whiten (2008) notes, this potentially gives cultural transmission experiments added significance: “cultural transmission should not only be studied for its own sake (i.e. in order to better understand cultural transmission itself), but also in order to explain broader cultural patterns and trends, all as part of a unified science of cultural evolution”.

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The Movius Line represents the crossing of a demographic threshold

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen examining the dispersal of Pleistocene hominins, one of the more fascinating debates concern the patterns of biological and technological evolution in East Asia and other regions of the Old World. One suggestion emerging from palaeoanthropological research places a demarcation between these two regions in the form of a geographical division known as the Movius Line. Specifically, the suggestions that initially led to the Movius Line were based on observations of differing technological patterns, namely: the lack of Acheulean handaxes and the Levallois core traditions in East Asia.

Since Hallam L. Movius’ initial proposal, the recent discovery of handaxes within East Asia have led to suggestions that the Movius Line is in fact obsolete. Suggesting this may not in fact be the case is a recent paper by Stephen Lycett & Christopher Norton, which highlights three central points coming from a growing body of research: 1) “several morphometric analyses have identified statistically significant differences between the attributes of specific biface assemblages from east and west of the Movius Line”; 2) “The number of sites from which handaxes have been recovered in East Asia tend to be geographically sparse compared with many regions west of the Movius Line”;  3) “‘handaxe’  specimens  tend only  to comprise a  small percentage of the total number of artefacts recovered, a situation that  contrasts  with  many  classic  Acheulean  sites  in  western portions of the Old World, where bifacial handaxes may dominate assemblages in large numbers”.

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How Culture Shaped The Human Genome

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.

The arcuate fasciculus within the dual stream model pt.2

ResearchBlogging.org3.1 What is the dual stream model?

Given these separate anatomical accounts, attributing a function(s) to the arcuate is not clear cut, and any current account is far from the authoritative statement on the matter. Nonetheless, a vast majority of literature does place the arcuate as part of the dual stream model[1] of speech processing, although its exact role within these neural networks is still being disputed – and largely depends on which anatomical account you prescribe to.

The basic assumption of dual stream accounts is that phonological networks interact with both conceptual-semantic and motor-articulatory systems, leading to a distinction between the neural networks that process this speech information. These separate interactions are summarised under two processing streams: the dorsal stream and the ventral stream (Hickok and Poeppel, 2007). Connecting phonological networks with conceptual-semantic systems, using structures in the superior and middle portions of the temporal lobe, is the ventral stream. Meanwhile, the dorsal stream is linked via structures in the posterior frontal lobe to the posterior temporal lobe and parietal operculum, which connects phonological networks with motor-articulatory systems (ibid).

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Iterated Learning and Language Evolution

ResearchBlogging.orgIf we accept that language is not only a conveyer of cultural information, but it is itself a socially learned and culturally transmitted system, then an individual’s linguistic knowledge is the result of observing the linguistic behaviour of others. This well attested process of language acquisition is often termed Iterated Learning, and it opens up a new avenue to investigate the design features of language: that cultural, as opposed to biological, evolution is fundamental in understanding these features.

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