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Trends Ecol Evol. 2005 Mar;20(3):116-21. Epub 2004 Dec 24.

A phylogenetic approach to cultural evolution.

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Department of Anthropology, University College London, Gower Street, London, UK, WC1E 6BT.


There has been a rapid increase in the use of phylogenetic methods to study the evolution of languages and culture. Languages fit a tree model of evolution well, at least in their basic vocabulary, challenging the view that blending, or admixture among neighbouring groups, was predominant in cultural history. Here, we argue that we can use language trees to test hypotheses about not only cultural history and diversification, but also bio-cultural adaptation. Phylogenetic comparative methods take account of the non-independence of cultures (Galton's problem), which can cause spurious statistical associations in comparative analyses. Advances in phylogenetic methods offer new possibilities for the analysis of cultural evolution, including estimating the rate of evolution and the direction of coevolutionary change of traits on the tree. They also enable phylogenetic uncertainty to be incorporated into the analyses, so that one does not have to treat phylogenetic trees as if they were known without error.


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