Research highlight

Sociology: Measuring the pace of modern culture

Nature Human Behaviour

January 21, 2020

Modern culture evolves slowly, at a pace similar to that of biological evolution, reports a study published this week in Nature Human Behaviour. This finding challenges the popular perception that human culture evolves much faster than organisms do.

In the past century, long-term field studies have allowed researchers to study biological evolution in animal populations, and to estimate the rate of evolutionary change. Previous research of archaeological records indicates that culture changes in a way that is similar to biological evolutionary change, but how rapidly this occurs is unknown.

Armand Leroi and colleagues selected ‘populations’ of cultural artefacts for which extensive recent historical records exist - such as pop music, literature, scientific papers and cars - and animal populations for comparison, like Darwin’s finches, peppered moths, tiger moths and an English snail species. The authors then applied metrics developed by evolutionary biologists to calculate the rates of change for both groups over time. They found that cultural and biological traits change at a similar pace. They also found that culture does not change at random, but is shaped by selective forces that either stabilise it or cause it to evolve in a given direction.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0802-4

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