Natural selection affects human culture too

February 19th, 2008 - 1:04 pm ICT by admin  


Washington, Feb 19 (IANS) In one of the most significant anthropological studies in recent times, a team of scientists from Stanford University has contended that the process of natural selection can act on human culture - as it does on genes. The study, which appears in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has shown that cultural traits impacting survival and reproduction evolve at a rate different from other cultural attributes.

The field of cultural evolution is controversial because not all historians, social scientists or even biologists agree that cultural change can be understood in an evolutionary context.

Yet, Nina Jablonski, chair of the anthropology department of the Pennsylvania State University, has described the new study as “one of the most significant papers to be written in anthropology in the last 20 years”.

The reason the subject is controversial is that many scientists suggest that human beliefs and behaviours are too unpredictable.

But this study, which compares the rates of change for structural and decorative Polynesian canoe-design traits to come to its conclusions, demonstrates that “some cultural choices work while others clearly do not”.

The team studied canoe designs from 11 oceanic island cultures. It evaluated 96 functional features that contribute to the seaworthiness of canoes, bearing on fishing success or survival during migration or warfare.

Statistical test results showed clearly that the functional canoe design elements changed more slowly over time, indicating that natural selection could be weeding out inferior new designs.

This cultural analysis is similar to analyses of the human genome that have been successful in finding which genes are under selection.

“What we don’t know, and need to learn, is how cultures change and how we can ethically influence that process,” said Paul Ehrlich, Bing professor of population studies at Stanford.

Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb” and other books on contemporary dilemmas, said he does not understand why more effort is not going into urgently needed solutions.

Deborah S. Rogers, a member of the Stanford team, said there are many examples today of cultural approaches that are putting humans at risk.

These include “everything from the economic incentives, industrial technologies and growth mentality that cause climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity, to the religious polarisation and political ideologies that generate devastating conflict around the globe.

“If the leadership necessary to undertake critically needed cultural evolution in these areas can’t be found, our civilisation may find itself weeded out by natural selection, just like a bad canoe design.”

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