Monday, October 17, 2016

Extending evolutionary theory? - Andrew Whiten

I will be attending the Royal Society Meeting on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. I'll post each of the abstracts and ask for your help in deciding what question to pose to the speakers. Here's the abstract for Andrew Whiten's talk on A second inheritance system: the extension of biology through culture.

By the mid-twentieth century the behavioural sciences could offer only the sketchy beginnings of a scientific literature documenting evidence for cultural inheritance in animals – the transmission of traditional behaviours via imitation and other processes of learning from others (social learning). By contrast, recent decades have seen a massive growth in the documentation of such cultural phenomena, driven by long-term field studies and complementary laboratory experiments. Here I first offer an overview of the major discoveries in this field, which increasingly suggest that this ‘second inheritance system’, built on the shoulders of the primary genetic inheritance system, occurs widely amongst vertebrates and possibly in insects and other invertebrates too. Its novel characteristics suggest it should have major implications for our understanding of evolutionary biology. Two major questions arising are accordingly addressed. One concerns the extent to which this second system echoes or differs from the principal properties of the primary evolutionary system described in the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the twentieth century and its extensions under discussion at this meeting. A subsidiary issue here is how the answers may differ much according to whether the focus is on the massively cumulative cultural evolution distinctive of our own species, or on the forms of cultural transmission documented for other species. The second major, and related, question concerns the extent to which the new discoveries about animal cultural transmission extend evolutionary theory, either in addition to or through interaction with the primary, genetically based inheritance systems.
Andrew Whiten is an emeritus professor in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland, UK). I'm curious to see his explanation of how cultural evolution in, say, bonobos, informs us about biological evolution.

Here's a possible question ...
The people living in St. Andrews experience a very different culture than the people living in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. Both groups have been exposed to Donald Trump since he owns a golf club near St. Andrews but they are likely to react differently to Trump. How will these cultural differences affect the biological evolution of the two groups in Texas and Scotland?


  1. Along the same lines:

    Is Brexit a form of cultural allopatric speciation?

  2. What is being talked abiout, I think, is if habits in insects or birds or anything are based on genes and not mere learning from parents etc.
    Do birds fly south by learning from other birds or is it innate.
    it seems mere learning does not explain why offspring so quickly know what to do .
    It is a issue.

  3. It depends who's upwind of the fallout as to who will experience more rapid mutation/evolution in the wake of Trump.

  4. The question seems a bit snarky. It is well known that cultural evolution influences the course of organic evolution. Classic examples are how dairy farming led to lactose tolerance and agriculture led to malarial resitance genes. Cultural practices like walking, talking cooking and farming have all left their mark on the human genome.

    More generally, biologists have long hoped to find another form of life on another planet - since it would illuminate which aspects of evolution & biology are historical accidents confined to our planet, and which are more general and universal. In cultural evolution, biologists have essentially found a new system exhibiting evolutionary dynamics. It's not quite like finding independently-evolved aliens - but it's close enough to illuminate existing evolutionary theory from a new angle.

  5. I agree with Tim, really snarky. Instead of carefully crafting your question to minimize the relevance of the topic on which the speaker is an expert, why not ask about a situation where it would be important? Whales are very intelligent and social creatures. Hunting has reduced their numbers greatly and it appears that there has been some loss of culture such as group calls. What are some cases where the loss of culture affects the vulnerability of species? How could knowledge of cultural evolution improve conservation efforts?