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PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Apr 30;15(4):e1006821. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006821. eCollection 2019 Apr.

The life history of learning: Demographic structure changes cultural outcomes.

Author information

School of Biology, Sir Harold Mitchell Building, Greenside Place, St Andrews, United Kingdom.
Department of Human Behavior, Ecology and Culture, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig, Germany.
Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, United States of America.
Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, United States of America.


Human populations show rich cultural diversity. Underpinning this diversity of tools, rituals, and cultural norms are complex interactions between cultural evolutionary and demographic processes. Most models of cultural change assume that individuals use the same learning modes and methods throughout their lives. However, empirical data on 'learning life histories'-the balance of dominant modes of learning (for example, learning from parents, peers, or unrelated elders) throughout an individual's lifetime-suggest that age structure may play a crucial role in determining learning modes and cultural evolutionary trajectories. Thus, studied in isolation, demographic and cultural evolutionary models show only part of the picture. This paper describes a mathematical and computational framework that combines demographic and cultural evolutionary methods. Using this general framework, we examine interactions between the ways in which culture is spread throughout an individual's lifetime and cultural change across generations. We show that including demographic structure alongside cultural dynamics can help to explain domain-specific patterns of cultural evolution that are a persistent feature of cultural data, and can shed new light on rare but significant demographic events.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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