The Evolution of Ethnic Markers

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

The essential feature of this theory is that, like genes, culture should be viewed as a system of inheritence. People acquire beliefs, attittudes, and values from others by scial learning, and then transmit them to others. Human behavior results fro the interaction of genetically and culturally inherited information. In the theoretical models we have cnonstrcited to represent this interaction, two results stand out:

    1. The cultural system of inheritence has many properties that make it quite different from the genetic system. [...] Such properties may often ehance genetic fitness because they allow modes of adaptation not avaiable to noncultural species.

    2. These same properties can lead to the evolution of many cultural traits that are costly divergent from those that would increase genetic fitness. Culture is an evolutionarily active part of a system that, jointly with genes and environment, can account for much of human behavioral variation. (Boyd & Richerson, 65)

About the Authors

Dr. Richerson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis. His main passion is cultural evolution. He frequently collaborates with Robert Boyd, Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, in  research on cultural evolution. Their work is mostly theoretical and conceptual. They use methods of analysis of evolution mainly developed by evolutionary biologists to study the processes of cultural evolution. The idea is to make models that illuminate the evolutionary properties of human culture and animal social learning, and the processes of gene-culture coevolution. For an accessible general account of this work in historical perspective click here (pdf file).  In recent publications they have been  using the theoretical models to try to understand some of the main events in human evolution, such as the evolution of  the advanced capacity for imitation (and hence cumulative cultural evolution in humans), the origin of language, the origins of tribal and larger scale cooperation, and the origins of agriculture. They and their students have conducted experiments and field work aimed at understanding the processes of cultural evolution. He teaches undergraduates about these things in his course, Evolution of Societies and Cultures.

Dr. Robert Boyd is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of California Los Angeles' Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture.

Unlike other organisms, humans acquire a rich body of information from others by teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning, and this culturally transmitted information strongly influences human behavior. Culture is an essential part of the human adaptation, and as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion or thick enamel on our molars. My research is focused on the evolutionary psychology of the mechanisms that give rise to and shape human culture, and how these mechanisms interact with population dynamic processes to shape human cultural variation. I have done much of this work in collaboration with Peter J. Richerson. - Robert Boyd

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