The ways of the forefathers & foremothers

By Razib Khan | March 30, 2010 7:17 pm

Fascinating post by Bayes, Phylogenetics, cultural evolution and horizontal transmission:

For some time now, evolutionary biologists have used phylogenetics. It is a well-established, powerful set of tools that allow us to test evolutionary hypotheses. More recently, however, these methods are being imported to analyse linguistic and cultural phenomena. For instance, the use of phylogenetics has led to observations that languages evolve in punctuational bursts, explored the role of population movements, and investigated the descent of Acheulean handaxes. I’ve followed the developments in linguistics with particular interest; after all, tracing the ephemeral nature of language is a daunting task. The first obvious road block is that prior to the invention of writing, the uptake of which is limited in geography and history, language leaves no archaeological record for linguists to examine. One particular note I’d like to make is that when Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of natural selection, he took inspiration from linguistic family trees as the basis for his sketch on the evolutionary tree of life. So it seems rather appropriate that phylogenetic approaches are now being used to inform our knowledge regarding linguistic evolution.

Like many other attempts applying evolutionary thinking in culture, phylogenetic approaches are, at times, met with contempt. This stems from assertions that cultural evolution and biological evolution differ greatly in regards to the relative importance of horizontal transmission….

I guess the general points to take away from this post are: 1) Do not necessarily assume horizontal transmission is dominant in shaping culture; and, 2) Even with certain levels of reticulation, it does not necessarily invalidate a phylogenetic approach in investigating cultural and linguistic evolution.

I think the point that horizontal transmission may be less important relative to vertical transmission than we’d previously thought in regards to the spread and diffusion of cultures may explain some of the recent findings from DNA extractions which suggest that hunter-gatherers were replaced in Europe by farmers. The standard model before the recent wave of extractions was that farming spread through cultural diffusion, with a minority view championed by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza of “demic diffusion” whereby demographic growth from the point of origination spread a culture, though the initial distinctive genetic signal became progressively weaker through dilution via admixture. But if cultural practices such as agriculture were much more vertically transmitted, from parent to child, rather than horizontally across societies, the genetic pattern of replacement becomes more comprehensible.

Of course, the main caveat is that intermarriage has been very common between neighboring groups. The rape of the Sabine women may reflect a common practice on the part of migratory males; the Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean was almost all male, so the subsequent generations were biologically the products of Greek men and native women (though culturally they were fully Greek, as evidenced by the term “Magna Graecia” to refer to Sicily and southern Italy). It is not atypical for vertical transmission of culture to occur from one parent, and in particular one sex. More recently the descendants of the pairings of Iberian men and indigenous women in Latin America tend to speak Spanish and avow the Christian faith. Though aspects of local identity, such as cuisine and clothing, may retain an indigenous stamp it is no coincidence that these populations are labelled “Latin American” despite their mixed genetic provenance.

Note: In the United States children have traditionally been more often raised in the denomination of their mother than father, so there isn’t always a male-bias in vertical transmission when the parents are not concordant for a cultural trait.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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