SPM Journal Club: Demography and Human Cultural Evolution

The evolution and spread of human culture are intriguing topics by themselves, but who knew cultural dynamics could be included into demographic population models?

We discuss a paper published this month that provides insights into the evolution of culture by including individual behavior into a structured population model:

"Inferring individual-level processes from population-level patterns in cultural evolution"

(Kandler et al. 2017, Royal Society Open Science)




Our species is characterized by a great degree of cultural variation, both within and between populations. Understanding how group-level patterns of culture emerge from individual-level behaviour is a long-standing question in the biological and social sciences. We develop a simulation model capturing demographic and cultural dynamics relevant to human cultural evolution, focusing on the interface between population-level patterns and individual-level processes. The model tracks the distribution of variants of cultural traits across individuals in a population over time, conditioned on different pathways for the transmission of information between individuals. From these data, we obtain theoretical expectations for a range of statistics commonly used to capture population-level characteristics (e.g. the degree of cultural diversity). Consistent with previous theoretical work, our results show that the patterns observed at the level of groups are rooted in the interplay between the transmission pathways and the age structure of the population. We also explore whether, and under what conditions, the different pathways can be distinguished based on their group-level signatures, in an effort to establish theoretical limits to inference. Our results show that the temporal dynamic of cultural change over time retains a stronger signature than the cultural composition of the population at a specific point in time. Overall, the results suggest a shift in focus from identifying the one individual-level process that likely produced the observed data to excluding those that likely did not. We conclude by discussing the implications for empirical studies of human cultural evolution.

Published Sep. 14, 2017 4:23 PM - Last modified Sep. 14, 2017 4:23 PM