Jamshid Tehrani (Durham)
Missing links and curious parallels: a phylogenetic approach to cultural transmission
Abstract: Early anthropologists believed that a direct analogy could be made between processes of cultural and biological evolution. Like organisms, social institutions, craft traditions, religious beliefs etc. were seen as products of 'descent with modification' whose relationships to one another could be traced back to original 'root forms'.
However, subsequent generations of anthropologists came to reject this project, and emphasized instead the differences between culture and biology. Thus, cultural forms were increasingly seen as the product of 'intelligent design' rather than of blind Darwinian processes.
Even cognitive anthropologists like Sperber have argued vigorously against biological models of cultural transmission on the basis that ideas and skills are not replicated in the way that genes are. In his view, similarities among cultural forms are more likely to reflect genetically hard-wired cognitive biases than shared history. In this talk I will address these issues in relation to recent attempts to reconstruct cultural origins using biological techniques of phylogenetic analysis.
This work provides useful insights into the similarities and differences between cultural and biological evolution, and suggests that the ambitions of those pioneering anthropologists in the nineteenth century may yet be fulfilled.