Identifying major transitions in human cultural evolution

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Ten thousand years ago most humans lived in small, kin based, relatively
egalitarian groups. Today we live in colossal nation states with
distantly related members, complex hierarchical organization, and huge
social inequality. This change in size and structure of human social
organization over this time represents a major transition in human’s
evolutionary history, one that we still know remarkably little about.

Identifying major transitions in human cultural evolution
Powerful new phylogenetic comparative methods can be applied to D-Place, a massive open-access database of places, 
language, culture and environment, and other databases in order to reconstruct the history of cultures and test
 theories about major transitions in human history. The map here shows the global distribution 
of independent vs. extended family living [Credit: d-place.org]

To date, most research on cultural evolution focuses on microevolution; changes that occur within cultural groups over relatively short periods of time. However, as Russell Gray, Director of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at MPI-SHH points out “processes observed at the micro level do not necessarily explain the macroevolutionary patterns and major transitions we observed in deeper human history.”

In a new article by Russell Gray and Joseph Watts in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present a “plea” for research on cultural macroevolution. The authors highlight the exciting potential to combined cutting edge statistical methods and comprehensive cross-cultural database to resolve longstanding debates about the major cultural transitions in human prehistory.

Recent years have seen the growth of large cross-cultural databases that document the features and diversity of human cultures. For example, the database called Lexibank contains data on 2,500 of languages, the Database of Religious History documents hundreds of different religious beliefs and practices, and D-Place documents our means of subsistence, kinship systems and a striking array of marital, sexual, and child-rearing norms. These databases are open access and allow anyone to visualize and download data on the diversity of human cultural systems.

Powerful new phylogenetic comparative methods can be applied to these databases in order to reconstruct the history of cultures and test theories about major transitions in human history. Gray, Watts and colleagues have begun to use these methods to reconstruct the ancestral history of Indo-European languages as well as test the role of Big Gods and human sacrifice in the evolution of large, complex societies. According to Watts “we’re entering a new age of research in the humanities, one in which theories about the major transitions in human history are built and tested using powerful computational methods.”

Source: Max Planck Society [July 27, 2017]

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