The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

16
Are Cultural Phylogenies
Possible?

With Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and William H. Durham

Biology and the social sciences share an interest in phylogeny. Biologists know that living species are descended from past species and use the pattern of similarities among living species to reconstruct the history of phylogenetic branching. Social scientists know that the beliefs, values, practices, and artifacts that characterize contemporary societies are descended from past societies, and some social science disciplines (e.g., linguistics and cross-cultural anthropology) have made use of observed similarities to reconstruct cultural histories. Darwin appreciated that his theory of descent, with modification, had many similarities of pattern and process to the already well-developed field of historical linguistics. In many other areas of social science, however, phylogenetic reconstruction has not played a central role.

Phylogenetic reconstruction plays three important roles in biology. First, it provides the basis for the classification. Entities descended from a common ancestor share novel, or derived, characters inherited from that ancestor. Therefore, it is possible to group them into hierarchically organized series of groups— species, genus, family, order, and so on in the biological case.

Second, knowledge of phylogeny often allows inferences about history. The knowledge that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas than to orangutans provides evidence that the human lineage arose in Africa. Phylogenetic reconstructions based on the characters of extant species or cultures often allow us to reconstruct the history in the absence of a historical, archaeological, or fossil record. In practice, the history of many biological and cultural groups is so poorly known that only by combining phylogenetic and historical or archaeological information can reliable reconstructions be obtained.

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