Behavioural variation in 172 small-scale societies indicates that social learning is the main mode of human adaptation

Proc. R. Soc. B Vol/Iss. 282(1810) The Royal Society Published In Pages: ??
By Mathew, Sarah, Perreault, Charles


Inter-group variation is greater in humans than in any other animal, and scholars continue to debate the cause of this diversity. Two competing explanatory models of human variation emphasize either (1) ecological differences and "evoked" culture or (2) population-level effects of cultural transmission. The former emphasizes mechanisms that operate within a single generation, while the latter emphasizes cumulative cultural history operating over many generations. To test these competing models, the authors measured the relative power of ecological variables as compared to culture history to predict behavioral variation in 172 western North American tribes. Culture history is subdivided into culture phylogeny (based on language phylogeny) and spatial distance.


The Western North American Indian dataset provided information on 297 behavioral variables across a variety of domains, including but not limited to: material culture, subsistence, economic organization, settlement pattern, kinship organization, warfare, supernatural beliefs. The environment of the tribes is also described by 133 ecological variables, including altitude, temperature, precipitation, and the presence of 125 species of plants and animals.


Sample Used Coded Data Comment
Western North American Indian (WNAI) datasetMixedBehavioral, linguistic, and ecological variables

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