Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Entanglements: Ecology & evolution, genes & culture, us & others

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I was invited by Chris Kortright and Jaime Yard to take part in a session at the annual American Anthropological Association here meeting held last week in Montreal, a session which was titled “The Conceptual Work of ‘Ecology’”. The word that stuck out for me in the abstract provided for the session was “entanglements”. So I gave my talk the title above and here is the abstract of what I talked about.

“Not long ago it was thought that causal relationships between ecology and evolution were unidirectional – ecological environments (including physical environments and other species) structure evolving populations. We now know that the unidirectional view was false. Evolving populations also construct ecological environments (commonly called niche construction).

Similarly it was thought that causal relationships between genes and culture were unidirectional. The sociobiological/human behavioural ecological/evolutionary psychological revolution(s) revealed how the propensities of human nature, including our cultural nature, had been shaped by genetic evolution. But we now know that unidirectional view to have also been false. Anthropologists like William H. Durham played a significant role in showing how much our genetic evolution has been shaped by culture. A count (by Laland et. al. blogged about here on Dec. 8, 2010) includes 8 categories, some including as many as 30 genes, whose evolution can plausibly be linked to culturally-transmitted selection pressures. Thus came the era of not only gene-culture but also of culture-gene coevolution.

However, this theory and research remains anthropocentric. Genes and culture in the human species are viewed as coevolving in interaction with each other – i.e. excluding other species. However, the evidence that has been accumulating for decades now showing the ubiquity of culture and its evolution in other species implies that we are on the cusp of yet another revolution – interspecific gene-culture and culture-gene coevolution. And this revolution will not only be about our culture shaping their genes, but also about their genes shaping our culture.”

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