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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3416-20. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0711802105. Epub 2008 Feb 19.

Natural selection and cultural rates of change.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, Gilbert Building, 371 Serra Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.

Abstract

It has been claimed that a meaningful theory of cultural evolution is not possible because human beliefs and behaviors do not follow predictable patterns. However, theoretical models of cultural transmission and observations of the development of societies suggest that patterns in cultural evolution do occur. Here, we analyze whether two sets of related cultural traits, one tested against the environment and the other not, evolve at different rates in the same populations. Using functional and symbolic design features for Polynesian canoes, we show that natural selection apparently slows the evolution of functional structures, whereas symbolic designs differentiate more rapidly. This finding indicates that cultural change, like genetic evolution, can follow theoretically derived patterns.

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