The pleasures and perils of Darwinizing culture (with phylogenies)

Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Robert Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Citations (Scopus)


Current debates about “Darwinizing culture” have typically focused on the validity of memetics. In this article we argue that meme-like inheritance is not a necessary requirement for descent with modification. We suggest that an alternative and more productive way of Darwinizing culture can be found in the application of phylogenetic methods. We review recent work on cultural phylogenetics and outline six fundamental questions that can be answered using the power and precision of quantitative phylogenetic methods. However, cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is often far from treelike. We discuss the problems reticulate evolution can cause for phylogenetic analyses and suggest ways in which these problems can be overcome. Our solutions involve a combination of new methods for the study of cultural evolution (network construction, reconciliation analysis, and Bayesian mixture models), and the triangulation of different lines of historical evidence. Throughout we emphasize that most debates about cultural phylogenies can only be settled by empirical research rather than armchair speculation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)360-375
Number of pages16
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Bayesian models
  • borrowing
  • cultural evolution
  • gene tree
  • phylogenetics
  • reconciliation analysis
  • reticulation
  • word tree


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