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The Pace of Cultural Evolution
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Abstract
Today, humans inhabit most of the world’s terrestrial habitats. This observation has been explained by the fact that we possess a secondary inheritance mechanism, culture, in addition to a genetic system. Because it is assumed that cultural evolution occurs faster than biological evolution, humans can adapt to new ecosystems more rapidly than other animals. This assumption, however, has never been tested empirically. Here, I compare rates of change in human technologies to rates of change in animal morphologies. I find that rates of cultural evolution are inversely correlated with the time interval over which they are measured, which is similar to what is known for biological rates. This correlation explains why the pace of cultural evolution appears faster when measured over recent time periods, where time intervals are often shorter. Controlling for the correlation between rates and time intervals, I show that (1) cultural evolution is faster than biological evolution; (2) this effect holds true even when the generation time of species is controlled for; and (3) culture allows us to evolve over short time scales, which are normally accessible only to short-lived species, while at the same time allowing for us to enjoy the benefits of having a long life history.

Read the full publication at PLOS One

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