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Journal Article

Generative inference for cultural evolution


Powell,  Adam
Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Kandler, A., & Powell, A. (2018). Generative inference for cultural evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 373(1743). doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0056.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0000-AF38-D
One of the major challenges in cultural evolution is to understand why and how various forms of social learning are used in human populations, both now and in the past. To date, much of the theoretical work on social learning has been done in isolation of data, and consequently many insights focus on revealing the learning processes or the distributions of cultural variants that are expected to have evolved in human populations. In population genetics, recent methodological advances have allowed a greater understanding of the explicit demographic and/or selection mechanisms that underlie observed allele frequency distributions across the globe, and their change through time. In particular, generative frameworks—}often using coalescent-based simulation coupled with approximate Bayesian computation (ABC){—}have provided robust inferences on the human past, with no reliance on a priori assumptions of equilibrium. Here, we demonstrate the applicability and utility of generative inference approaches to the field of cultural evolution. The framework advocated here uses observed population-level frequency data directly to establish the likely presence or absence of particular hypothesized learning strategies. In this context, we discuss the problem of equifinality and argue that, in the light of sparse cultural data and the multiplicity of possible social learning processes, the exclusion of those processes inconsistent with the observed data might be the most instructive outcome. Finally, we summarize the findings of generative inference approaches applied to a number of case studies.This article is part of the theme issue {‘}Bridging cultural gaps: interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution{’.