Macro matters: Cultural macroevolution and the prospects for an evolutionary science of human history

DISCIPLINE : BIOLOGY

Macro matters: Cultural macroevolution and the prospects for an evolutionary science of human history

Russell David Gray is an evolutionary biologist and psychologist working on applying quantitative methods to the study of cultural evolution and human prehistory. He worked as a professor at the University of Auckland.

 His faculty webpage

Abstract of his communication: "Biological thinking and methods can be extended to both cultural micro and macroevolution. However, much of the current literature focuses on cultural microevolution. In this talk I will argue that the growing availability of large cross-cultural data sets facilitates the use of computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to answer broad scale questions about the major transitions in human social organization. I will illustrate this argument with examples drawn from my recent work on the roles of Big Gods and ritual human sacrifice in the evolution of large, stratified societies. These analyses show that although the presence of Big Gods is correlated with the evolution of political complexity, in Austronesian cultures at least, they did not play a causal role in ratcheting up political complexity. In contrast, ritual human sacrifice does play a causal role in promoting and sustaining the evolution of stratified societies by maintaining and legitimizing the power of elites. I will briefly discuss some common objections to the application of phylogenetic modelling to cultural evolution, and argue that the use of these methods does not require a commitment to either gene-like cultural inheritance or to the view that cultures are like vertebrate species. I conclude that the careful application of these methods can substantially enhance the prospects of an evolutionary science of human history. The macro not only matters, it is tractable."

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