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Models of genetic and cultural
evolution, part 1
College 002: Biology, Language, Culture
Thursday, March 22, 2001
• Analogies between genetic and cultural
evolution (part 1)
• Differences between genetic and
cultural evolution (part 2)
• Genetic/cultural co-evolution
Road Map for part 1
• Evolution as variation + selection = adaptation
• Evolution of behavior
– genetic
– cultural
• Emergent properties of social behavior
– as result of evolving strategies
– as environment for evolution
Genetic variation and adaptation
• Genetic variation is ubiquitous
• Is a variant worse, neutral or better?
– the answer often depends on the environment
• In a given environment:
– some variants may be “selected for”
• i.e. produce more offspring
– Result: the population adapts to the environment
– (though much variation is selectively neutral
• The population is (part of) the environment
– so the population adapts to interact with itself
– especially
• in social species
• mating behavior
Adaptation in Fundulus Heteroclitus
• Also known as “killifish”
• 5-7 inches, olive green to blue back, white belly
• Lives in salt marshes and tidal creeks
from Labrador to Mexico
• Lactate dehydrogenase
• Enzyme that catalyzes conversion of
lactate to pyruvate
• A key step in energy production in living
• Often the limiting factor in speed or
LDH variants
• All enzymes have varying effectiveness at
different temperatures
• Some variants work better at lower
temperatures, some work better at higher
• Fish are cold-blooded, so their body
temperature depends on the water
• Mummichog genetic LDH variants
– vary in effectiveness at different temperatures
– are selected according to location (I.e.
– result: adaptation to different environments
Mummichog LDH efficiency
The mummichog B locus for lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) has two
common alleles, LDH-Ba and LDH-Bb.
Catalytic efficiency varies with temperature:
the bb genotype “wins” at lower temperatures,
while the aa genotype “wins” at higher temperatures.
Mummichog LDH geography
In the Gulf of Maine, nearly all mummichogs have the
genotype bb at the LDH-B locus.
Off South Carolina, the aa genotype rules.
In between, it’s in between.
Adaptation can be rapid
• In Long Island Sound, the aa (warm-water)
genotype has an overall frequency of 15%
• But for Mummichogs living in the thermal
effluent of a power plant, aa frequency is 30%.
• Efficient adaptation to environmental variation: a
mummichog micro-habitat
• Number of generations: <20
• Like beak variation among Darwin’s Finches on
the Galapagos Islands
– major adaptation to climate change in <5 generations
Bacterial taxis
Taxis: “ability to move in a desired direction”:
Phototaxis: towards or away from light
Chemotaxis: towards or away from chemicals
Magnetotaxis: with respect to magnetic field
Simple but
the microscopic level]
• finding food
chemotaxis at the molecular level]
• avoiding harm
In colonial and multicellular creatures,
chemotaxis is crucial in creating structures
Basic mechanisms of bacterial taxis
• Alternation of (straight-line) “runs”
and (random) “tumbles”
– 3D random walk [animation]
– attractants bind a chemoreceptor
that increases time between tumbles
– repellants decrease time between tumbles
• About 40 genes in the basic system
– plus additional genes for new sensors
– Can orient towards or away from:
• nutrients, poisons, oxygen, light, pH, temperature, etc.
• Categories (which chemicals? which wavelengths? etc.)
and responses (towards or away?)
evolve adaptively
Rhodospirillum centenum
likes it warm and dark…
Tropisms in higher organisms
• Mechanisms are more complex
– (and largely unknown)
• Result is similar
– attraction towards some things
– repulsion from others
• Such preferences may be “learned”
– by individuals: what we normally think of as
– by (sub-)species: through genetic variation and
selection leading to adaptation
Natural behavior variation in
Drosophila Melanogaster
Fruit flies show natural variation in preferences
Pupae hatching in experimental “habitat maze”
– separated themselves on four dimensions of preference
time of the day of emergence (early/late)
– 16 preference combinations
end up in different places in the maze
(Un)natural selection
leads to speciation!
• Two “opposite” strains were mated for
25 generations
– early/up/dark/acetaldehyde vs.
• Result: reproductive isolation and
habitat specialization
• Conclusion: behavioral preferences
were genetically mediated
Cultural variation and adaptation
• Cultural variation is ubiquitous
• Is a variant worse, neutral or better?
– the answer often depends on the environment
• In a given environment:
– some variants may be “selected for”
• i.e. populations grow or traits are borrowed
– Result: cultures adapt to their environment
• (though much cultural change appears to be neutral)
• The population is (part of) the environment
• so the population adapts to interact with itself
• especially
– in social species
– for social behavior
The culture of military tactics
• From Greek taxis “order, arrangement”
• Two main approaches in the ancient world:
The two patterns
• Heavy infantry: like the Macedonian phalanx
– Associated with city-states in the eastern
• Light cavalry: like the Mongol hordes
– Associated with pastoral nomads on the Eurasian
• Choice in many dimensions:
– weapons, armor, tactics, lifestyle
Herders vs. farmers
• Mounted archers
• Light bow, no armor
• Success based on
– lots of practice in
riding and shooting
• No good at
defending fixed
• Foot soldiers
• 70 pounds of arms
– helmet, shield
– spear, sword
• Success based on
shock of mass
– little training required
• Not very mobile
Geography of two military cultures
Comparison of two failed invasions
• In 514 B.C., the Persian king Darius tried to conquer
the Scythian nomads (roughly in the area of presentday Ukraine). He chased them all over their vast
domains, and finally had to return home in frustration.
• Darius invaded Greece in 490 B.C. He sacked a few
cities, and was defeated by the Athenian infantry
(who were outnumbered 3 to 1) at the battle of
Marathon. The Athenians caught the Persians
unprepared by running a mile in full panoply, which
was an unheard-of tactic at the time.
The Greek historian Herodotus describes both invasions,
and admires the ability of the Scythian nomads to win without
pitched battles:
The Scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most
important of all those that fall under man's control, shown themselves
wiser than any nation upon the face of the earth. Their customs
otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speakis
the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who
invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely
out of his reach, unless it please them to engage with him. Having
neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever
they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from
horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their
waggons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being
unconquerable, and unassailable even?
• Adaptation of weapons, tactics
– Asian steppe vs. Mediterranean coast
– Herding vs. farming
– Nomadic bands vs. walled cities
• Continuing cultural variation
– proliferation and copying of what worked best
– result: consistent patterns across thousands of
years and miles
• Process was (mainly) cultural
– some genetic effects are possible
– ~300 generations
• Adaptation to two ecological niches
– fitness depends on the environment
– cultural and geographical
Emergent properties
of group behavior
• Descriptions at different levels
– temperature, sound vs. molecular motions
– cell vs. macromolecules
– organism vs. cell
– ant colony vs. individual ants
– marketplace vs. individual merchants
• Some key properties only emerge in
group interactions
Why this matters
• Fitness is often determined by emergent
– Fitness in multicellular organisms can’t be
determined by looking only at individual
– Fitness in social organisms can’t be
determined by looking only at individuals
Ant path selection
Ant problem solving
Termite mound
How social insect behavior evolves
• individual properties are genetically controlled
– pheremone chemistry
– when to emit which pheremones
– effects of sensing pheremones
• intelligent group, stupid individuals
– plans and decisions exist only at the group level
– dispositions of individuals are like elements of a circuit
or statements in a program
• evolutionary environment is (mainly) the group
– like the evolutionary situation of multicelled organisms
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”
[A merchant] generally, indeed, neither intends to
promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is
promoting it. … [H]e intends only his own gain, and
he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an
invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of
his intention. … By pursuing his own interest he
frequently promotes that of the society more
effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
Wealth of Nations, Book IV
• Analogies between genetic and cultural
– Variation and adaptation
– Outcome depends on environment
• (and chance!)
– Results feed back as part of environment
– Emergent phenomena are important
• Next time: some differences!