ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Genes and culture, past and present
Location Arch & Anth LT1
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 16:30


Robert Layton (Durham University)
Katherine Smith (University of Manchester)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel will explore the co-evolution of genes and culture from a number of different angles. It will explore the interactions between human genetic and cultural diversity and the influence that genetic variation has on the selection of cultural variants in the past, present and future.

Long Abstract

Human genetic and cultural diversity has been shaped by genetic and social transmission of information over time. The concept of co-evolution examines interactions between these two lines of inheritance, characterizing the influence that genetic variation has on selection of cultural variants and vice versa, and contributes to our understanding of human variation in the past/present/future. The co-evolution of genes and culture will be explored from a number of different angles, including the following:

1. In public understanding of science, ‘genes’ and ‘bloodlines’ become generated facts, fashioning cultural understandings, political possibilities and "common-sense" assumptions. Intersections of race/diaspora/kinship figure in these issues, where genetic origins emerge as shared concern.

2. Gene-culture interactions influence human evolution (e.g. dairy farming and lactose absorption; infanticide and genetic-sex ratio; agricultural practices and disease resistance).

3. Cultural techniques for manipulating genetics (e.g. genetic modification of crops, in-vitro fertilization) have significant implications for the future of society.

4. Evolutionary models are increasingly used in archaeology and anthropology to study transmissions of cultural traits (e.g. pottery designs and children’s names).

5. The extent to which human social behaviour has a biological basis, or is shaped by culture, is a controversial topic in social anthropology. Developments in game theory (e.g. the application of the ‘Ultimatum Game’ cross-culturally) offer more nuanced evidence for the interaction of genes and culture.

6. Evolutionary theory encompasses several schools of thought; Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene/meme’ is only one. Other schools may be more sympathetic to the research interests of archaeology and social anthropology.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Co-evolution: a means to reconcile the social and natural sciences?

Author: Robert Layton (Durham University)


This paper will be an introductory overview on the co-evolution of genes and culture, and the effect of social complexity on the human environment.

Macroevolutionary Patterning in Technological Evolution: Bicycle Design from 1800 to 2000

Author: Mark Lake (UCL)


A recurring pattern in biological evolution is that increases in diversity proceed by early diversification at higher taxonomic levels followed by later diversification at lower taxonomic levels. Kauffman (1995, p.205-6) has argued that this pattern results from the increased cost of exploring distant lo-cations in design space as evolution proceeds and that it is the expected outcome of any process of adaptive evolution irrespective of substrate. He cites the development of the bicycle as a non-biological example of breadth-first search followed by depth-first search. In this paper we build on Lyman and O'Brien's (2000, pp.47-53) use of clade diversity statistics to examine the exploration of technological design space. Specifically, we construct an explicit hierarchical taxonomy of bicycle designs in order to investigate changing design diversity across different taxonomic levels.

Does the world not move to the beat of just one drum? Autism, different minds and the emergence of modern human behaviour

Author: Penny Spikins (University of York)


The suite of behavioural changes which characterise 'the emergence of modern human behaviour' (160,000-40,000bp) have remained something of an enigma. Here it is argued that social mechanisms allowing the 'incorporation of difference' prompted the rise of structured cognitive variations (such as autism) in populations at this time. These changes are argued to provide an explanation for key 'modern' behaviours such as the emergence of precise standardised technology, symbolic art and personal ornamentation and rapid population expansion.

On the interpretation of cultural and linguistic phylogenies

Author: James Steele (UCL)


In recent years phylogenetic methods have been used to reconstruct historical relationships among languages, and to estimate rates of vertical transmission and of borrowing in the cultural traditions documented by ethnographers. I shall introduce this work, and discuss briefly some of the underlying assumptions about human cultural transmission.

My main purpose in this talk is to question the demographic interpretation which is often proposed or implied when a tree-building approach has been taken to a set of cultures or languages, namely that the resulting tree is also representative of a bifurcating population history.

Firstly, I will ask in what circumstances the attributes of artefacts made by adults display the features taught to them as children, and in what circumstances those attributes reflect the norms and requirements of the community in which the adult has residence.

Secondly, I will describe recent work on language competition and language shift, and ask in what circumstances processes on trees might reflect analogous underlying demographic events. In other words, when does branch pruning on a linguistic phylogeny (language death) reflect local population extinction, and when does it reflect a purely cultural extinction process with the descendants of its speakers simply transferring to a different branch of the language tree (language shift)?

Ethnic absolutism and the re-working of charged 'symbols' in a North Manchester town

Author: Katherine Smith (University of Manchester)


Based upon twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper will explore the shifting meanings of local racial differentiations in Higher Blackley, North Manchester, England. It will focus upon the use of terms in the objectifications and reifications of others and the relationships between 'ethnicity' as a 'shifting politics of identity and "collective" representation' and 'ethnic absolutism' as a 'progressively essentialising politics of violation and absolute negation of alterity' (Werbner 1997: 227-228). The distinction between and co-evolution of the 'biological' and the 'social' has been blurred with recent studies and technological developments; however, taken-for-granted language used to point to perceived 'biological' differences between 'races' will be explored further, deconstructed and put into a critical light for reflection. As such, this paper will explore the 'naturalness' attributed to socially constructed, sometimes shared categories that set up arbitrary boundaries, and which become in time routine practice, grounded in commonsensical social constructions.

Sickle cell gene and the slave trade in West Africa - a new interpretation

Author: Paul Richards (Njala University, Sierra Leone)


In a classic paper, Livingstone proposed that two West African forest enclaves with low frquencies of sickle cell S allele could be explained - in a region of endemic malaria - by the late arrival of intensive rice agriculture. This was read by Durham as a clear instance of biological and cultural co-evolution. But a later paper by Livingstone extends analysis comparatively to West Africa and India, and argues for the diffusion of the S allele from a Middle Eastern centre of origin. Isolation rather than agriculture explains the Upper Western African low frequency regions. But isolation from what? This question can be answered, it is suggested, by paying attention to sickle cell C as well as sickle cell S. Sickle cell C is endemic to the Voltaic region of West Africa. Recent research establishes that sickle cell C has much higher fitness than sickle cell S. It is suggested that the puzzle of why C remains confined within a narrow region, while the less-fit S is widely distributed in West Africa, can be resolved by paying attention to the evolution of the intra-West African slave trade. It is consistent with this hypothesis that the low sickle cell S enclaves and the high sickle cell C exclave all have a cultural history of resistance to involvement in the slave trade. Cultural introversion, not diffusion of agriculture, blocked inward geneflow of the S allele and prevented outward geneflow of sickle cell C, it is suggested.

On the coevolution of cognition and culture

Authors: Jeremy Kendal (Durham University)
Jamie Tehrani (Durham University)
Robert Layton (Durham University)


The paper considers the gene-culture coevolution between the cognitive capacity for social learning and socially learned information. In the first section, we focus on the evolution of psychological mechanisms and biases affecting cultural evolution. In the second section, we consider the cognitive evolution in the hominid lineage that resulted in some unique characteristics of human culture, including cumulative cultural evolution, large-scale cooperation and symbolism. The chapter closes by arguing that a framework of multi-modal inheritance, provides a suitable framework to account for the coevolution of human cognition and culture.