Evolutionary Genetics and Cultural Traits

The chapter explains why evolutionary genetics – a mathematical body of theory developed since the 1910s – eventually got to deal with culture: the frequency dynamics of genes like “the lactase gene” in populations cannot be correctly modeled without including social transmission. While the body of theory requires specific justifications, for example meticulous legitimations of describing culture in terms of traits, the body of theory is an immensely valuable scientific instrument, not only for its modeling power but also for the amount of work that has been necessary to build, maintain, and expand it. A brief history of evolutionary genetics is told to demonstrate such patrimony, and to emphasize the importance and accumulation of statistical knowledge therein. The probabilistic nature of genotypes, phenogenotypes and population phenomena is also touched upon. Although evolutionary genetics is actually composed by distinct and partially independent traditions, the most important mathematical object of evolutionary genetics is the Mendelian space, and evolutionary genetics is mostly the daring study of trajectories of alleles in a population that explores that space. The ‘body’ is scientific wealth that can be invested in studying every situation that happens to turn out suitable to be modeled as a Mendelian population, or as a modified Mendelian population, or as a population of continuously varying individuals with an underlying Mendelian basis. Mathematical tinkering and justification are two halves of the mutual adjustment between the body of theory and the new domain of culture. Some works in current literature overstate justification, misrepresenting the relationship between body of theory and domain, and hindering interdisciplinary dialogue.


Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (forthcoming). Evolutionary genetics and cultural traits in a ‘body of theory’ perspective. In Panebianco F, Serrelli E, eds. Understanding cultural traits. A multidisciplinary perspective on cultural diversity. Springer, Chapter 11. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/49987]