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Chapter 2

Textbook Ch. 2: Cultural Evolution

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University of Toronto St. George
Nick Rule

CHAPTER 2 CULTURAL EVOLUTION - transformation of manners over time; some reflect changing views of what is healthy (e.g. spitting, nose blowing), others are quite arbitrary Where Does Cultural Variation Come From? Ecological and Geographic Variation - cultures in which the environment is harsh and requires courage and physical prowess to secure a living, cultures of masculinity that value strength and toughness of males are likely to emerge - cultures in which the environment is more benign and food is plentiful and more easily acquired, more androgynous sex roles are likely to emerge Small Differences Can Have Large Effects - e.g. Pizarro, with 168 Spanish soldiers, succeeded in overthrowing the Incan empire - proximal causes, those that have direct and immediate relations with their effects - Spaniards had the technology to build ships that allowed them to reach the Americas, had steel swords, armour, and guns, and had horses - distal causes, initial differences that lead to effects over long periods of time - Diamond’s book (1997); the “Fertile Crescent” that contained species of plants and animals that were especially suited for domestication - they quickly spread East and West as they shared a latitude; agricultural developments by the Mayans in Mexico were unlikely to reach the Incans in Peru - created settlements, tools, more time devoted to non-food producing tasks - domestication of animals meant humans lived in close proximity with animals leading to many diseases to cross over and infect humans - over time, survivors developed a resistance to them Transmitted Versus Evoked Culture - evoked culture, all people have certain biologically encoded behavioural repertoires that are potentially accessible to them; they are engaged when the appropriate situational conditions are present - people from around the world prefer mates who are more physically attractive - evolutionary reasoning; physically attractive people tend to be healthier - in contexts with little variability in the health of potential mates, physical attractiveness is a less useful basis for mate selection - the more parasites that were prevalent in a culture, the more people emphasized the physical attractiveness of potential mates - we all have the potential to value physical attractiveness; this motivation is strongly activated in environments where the health of our mates is less certain - tied to particularly geographic environments; when one moves to a new environment, new behavioural responses should be evoked - transmitted cultures, people learn about particular cultural practices through social learning or by modeling behaviour of others - typically begins in a particular geographic area but people can bring their transmitted ideas with them; culture can spread past their initial set of geographic conditions - evoked culture can become a norm that may be learned by others and transmitted to further generations, even when the initial situational variable is gone - Dinka and Nuer cultures that coexist in southern Sudan - live in the same ecology, share similar technology, raise similar crops and livestock - Nuer rely on milk from cattle; Dinka rely on meat from cattle; they have very different cultural practices - (Edgerton, 1971) studied four East African tribes, each having multiple communities that lived in different ecological settings - tribal affiliation was a better predictor of people’s attitude than was their primary means of subsistence How Do Ideas Catch On? - cultural evolution requires that certain ideas are passed on; cultures change when ideas become widely shared among the population Parallels Between Biological and Cultural Evolution - biological evolution occurs when certain genes become more common in populations than they were in the past; operates through two mechanisms - natural selection, occurs when (1) there is individual variability among members of a species on certain traits; (2) those traits are associated with different survival rates; (3) those traits have a hereditary basis - sexual selection, those who can best attract the healthiest mate will be the most likely to have surviving offspring - determines which traits will come to be desired by sexual partner - some ideas are more likely to persist – longer survival rates; some ideas are more likely to attract adherents than others – reproduce more Ideas as Replicators - successful replicators...need to have a certain degree of longevity - replicate as accurately as possible; copying must be of high fidelity - fecundity; be able to produce many copies of itself - (Dawkins, 1976) proposed that there could be a cultural equivalence to genes (replicators in biological evolution), termed memes - the smallest units of cultural information that can be transmitted (e.g. tunes, catch- phrases, scientific theories) - they are instructions for particular ways of behaving or speaking; stored in our brains or in written texts or in objects; replicated through communication or imitation - hasn’t been explicitly identified or consensually recognized - cultural evolution grows from innovations that are typically not random copying errors but usually planned innovations; basis of variability in genes and memes are fundamentally different - cultural transmission doesn’t appear to be of very high fidelity (e.g. “telephone”) - usually the gist of the message survives retellings; to the extent that the gist of the message can be seen as the central meme, then fidelity may not be so problematic - memes don’t have to be adaptive to become common - e.g. practice among the Fore of New Guinea of ritualized cannibalism even thought it often leads to kuru, a degenerative disease Epidemiology of Ideas - argues that there is no direct replication of ideas; proposes the following steps - an individual has a mental representation of an idea in his mind - another individual, who learns about this idea from the first person, creates a mental representation of the idea in his own head - the mental representation is different from the inventor’s because it is constrained by the imitator’s biases - because people share many similar biases, people’s imitating tends to be accurate - ideas spread from person to person; the ideas are created anew by each individual; there is much variation from person to person Factors That Cause Ideas to Spread Communicable Ideas Spread - e.g. some ideas difficult to summarize succinctly, some might seem less useful, some may be deemed too socially undesirable for people to express - (Schaller et al., 2002) asked participants how characteristic a number of trait words were for what they believed others thought about certain ethnic groups - traits words that were most characteristic of the shared stereotype were also the words that were more commonly used to communicate information about other - dynamic social impact theory, individuals come to influence each other primarily in terms of how often they interact, ultimately leading to clusters of like-minded people - 2004 American presidential election; support for Bush and Kerry emerged in clear-cut geographical clusters - surveyed students’ attitudes at the beginning of the year; over the course of the year, students came to have similar attitudes with people with whom they shared a common living space Emotional Ideas Spread - urban or contemporary legends, fictional stories that are told in modern societies as though they are true (e.g. razors in Halloween candy) - one reason they spread is that they have informational value; even if the information may not always be accurate - (Heath et al., 2001) people were more motivated to spread stories
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