Despite the popularity of cultural evolution as an idea, with cultures as organisms and memes as genes, the actual science has lagged.
But by applying the tools of population genetics to Polynesian boat designs, researchers show that cultural evolution might be studied as rigorously as the beaks of finches.
“Evolution is a logical way of looking at change over time,” said Deborah Rogers, a Stanford University evolutionary biologist. “There’s nothing inherently biological about it. The logic can be applied to cultural change. Biology was just the first place that people ran with it.”
Working with fellow Stanford researchers Marcus Feldman and Paul Ehrlich, Rogers converted archaeological records of Polynesian canoes, the design of which varied between islands and tribes, into standardized descriptions.
The structure of that dataset was described in a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the latest study, published in the November Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers ran their data through a program of the sort typically used to analyze genetic information, inferring trees of relationships from patterns of inherited biological difference.