Cultural macroevolution matters [Anthropology]
Evolutionary thinking can be applied to both cultural microevolution and macroevolution. However, much of the current literature focuses on cultural microevolution. In this article, we argue that the growing availability of large cross-cultural datasets facilitates the use of computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to answer broad-scale questions about the major transitions in human social organization. Biological methods can be extended to human cultural evolution. We illustrate this argument with examples drawn from our recent work on the roles of Big Gods and ritual human sacrifice in the evolution of large, stratified societies. These analyses show that, although the presence of Big Gods is correlated with the evolution of political complexity, in Austronesian cultures at least, they do not play a causal role in ratcheting up political complexity. In contrast, ritual human sacrifice does play a causal role in promoting and sustaining the evolution of stratified societies by maintaining and legitimizing the power of elites. We briefly discuss some common objections to the application of phylogenetic modeling to cultural evolution and argue that the use of these methods does not require a commitment to either gene-like cultural inheritance or to the view that cultures are like vertebrate species. We conclude that the careful application of these methods can substantially enhance the prospects of an evolutionary science of human history.
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