Culture drives human evolution more than genetics


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In a new study, researchers at the University of Maine have found that culture helps humans adapt to their environment and overcome challenges better and faster than genetics.

After carrying out an extensive review of the literature and the evidence for long-term human evolution, scientists Tim Waring and Zach Wood concluded that humans are going through a “special evolutionary transition” in which the importance of culture, as knowledge, practices and skills acquired, exceed the value of genes as the main engine of human evolution.

Culture is an underestimated factor in human evolution, says Waring. Like genes, culture helps people adapt to their environment and meet the challenges of survival and reproduction. Culture, however, does this more efficiently than genes, because knowledge transfer is faster and more flexible than gene inheritance, according to Waring and Wood.

Culture is a more powerful coping mechanism for several reasons, says Waring. It’s faster: gene transfer only takes place once per generation, while cultural practices can be learned quickly and frequently updated. Culture is also more flexible than genes: gene transfer is rigid and limited to genetic information from both parents, while cultural transmission is based on flexible and effectively unlimited human learning with the ability to use peer information. and experts far beyond parents. As a result, cultural evolution is a stronger type of adaptation than old genetics.

Waring, associate professor of socio-ecological systems modeling, and Wood, postdoctoral associate researcher at the School of Biology and Ecology, have just published their findings in a review of the literature in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the flagship journal of biological research of the Royal Society in London.

“This research explains why humans are such a unique species. We evolve both genetically and culturally over time, but we are slowly becoming more and more cultural and less and less genetic,” Waring said.

Culture has influenced the way humans survive and evolve for millennia. According to Waring and Wood, the combination of culture and genes has fueled several key adaptations in humans, such as reduced aggression, cooperative inclinations, collaborative abilities, and the capacity for social learning. Increasingly, the researchers suggest, human adaptations are culture-driven and require genes to adapt.

Waring and Wood say the culture is also special in an important way: it is strongly group-oriented. Factors such as conformity, social identity, and shared norms and institutions – factors that have no genetic equivalent – make cultural evolution very group-oriented, the researchers say. Therefore, competition between culturally organized groups propels adaptations such as new cooperative norms and new social systems that help groups survive better together.

According to the researchers, “culturally organized groups seem to solve adaptation problems more easily than individuals, thanks to the added value of social learning and cultural transmission in groups”. Cultural adaptations can also occur more quickly in large groups than in small ones.

With groups that primarily run culture and culture now fueling human evolution more than genetics, Waring and Wood found that evolution itself has become more group-driven.

“In the very long term, we suggest that humans evolve from individual genetic organisms to cultural groups that function like superorganisms, similar to ant colonies and beehives,” says Waring. “The metaphor of ‘society as an organism’ is not that metaphorical after all. This idea can help society better understand how individuals can fit into a well organized and mutually beneficial system. Take the coronavirus pandemic, for example. An effective national epidemic response program is truly a national immune system, and therefore we can learn directly from how immune systems work to enhance our COVID response. ”

Social groups are essential for the preservation of natural resources

More information:
Timothy M. Waring et al, Long-term gene-culture coevolution and human evolutionary transition, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1098 / rspb.2021.0538

Provided by the University of Maine

Quote: Researchers: Culture drives human evolution more than genetics (2021, June 3) retrieved June 3, 2021 from

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