Going beyond WEIRD dichotomies-cultural anthropology with a genetical lens

From my 10 questions for Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza I asked him about the reaction of anthropologists to Cultural Evolution and Transmission, a book written in the late 1970s with Marcus Feldman:

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

He judged that Cultural Evolution and Transmission had little influence. But Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd learned the application of population and quantitative genetic modeling to cultural dynamics from Feldman in the 1980s. In their own turn, they trained researchers such as Joe Henrich.

Henrich in his turn helped train scholars such as Michael Muthukrishna. Here’s a preprint that has me really excited, Beyond WEIRD Psychology – Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance:

We present a new tool that provides a means to measure the psychological and cultural distance between two societies and create a distance scale with any population as the point of comparison. Since psychological data is dominated by samples drawn from the United States or other WEIRD nations, this tool provides a “WEIRD scale” to assist researchers in systematically extending the existing database of psychological phenomena to more diverse and globally representative samples. As the extreme WEIRDness of the literature begins to dissolve, the tool will become more useful for designing, planning, and justifying a wide range of comparative psychological projects. We have made our code available and developed an online application for creating other scales (including the “Sino scale” also presented in this paper). We discuss regional diversity within nations showing the relative homogeneity of the United States. Finally, we use these scales to predict various psychological outcomes.

For the people who know genetics, they have created a cultural analogy of Fst!!!. From the preprint:

Cultural FST (CFST) is calculated in the same manner as Genetic FST, but instead of a genome, we use a large survey of cultural values as a “culturome”, with questions treated as loci and answers treated as alleles.

I’m going to just present two figures without comment:

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3 thoughts on “Going beyond WEIRD dichotomies-cultural anthropology with a genetical lens

  1. Thank you very much, that paper is awesome. And the website it point is enjoyable.

    There are lots of unsuspected closeness (kinda of) between certain countries, like Kazakhstan and Vietnam, that are closer to each other than to Korea, etc.

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  2. Thoughts about ‘cultural Fst’, compared to the Fst (or ‘genetic Fst’) and compared to comparisons of averages of mean distance on cultural variables. (Which could be right, could be nonsense!)

    1) I’d think genetic fst can capture neutral population genetic phylogeny quite well because of the properties of genes. That is: independent replication of the same innovations (homoplasy) does not happen or is relatively very infrequent, the space of possible states is very large, most markers are selectively neutral and so neither by chance nor under selective pressure will the same state evolve more than once, and finally, there’s no question of assigning weight to a marker (a SNP is a SNP is a SNP, mostly, and there’s no question of whether one cultural trait should bear more weight, or whether it should be split into finer grained distinctions). Hence, states tend to be informative of ancestry dynamics relationships (rather than chance or shared selection or biases in markers).

    For kind of set of cultural traits, this is not going to be the case! (Neither is it true of linguistic traits, which makes attempts to understand long term language evolution similarities difficult). The same states in most variables under investigation are going to re-occur independently and frequently in cultures of different lineage patterns, through selection and pure chance.

    So although cultural fst may be part of a valiant attempt to an unbiased understanding of which cultures are really more or less related to each other, it doesn’t seem like it will ever be able to move towards explaining a neutral history of cultural relatedness in the same way as genetic fst (selective forces might be accountable for in a very complex model, but pure chance probably not?).

    2) Where Fst as well differs from a comparison of means, is, as I undertand it, by explictly using the information on within group variance to compare to and weight against between group variance.

    For genetic Fst, that’s mostly an effect of bottlenecks (reducing in group variation) or admixture (higher in group variation), while expansions in population size and selective forces don’t really affect that hugely. But for culture it’s probably quite different.

    Say you have a small, culturally homogenous population A, living on a small island. Then you have an event where they grow to a huge population B, living on a massive landmass. B’s large population means that it can become much more internally culturally variable, but A and B have about the same means on questions, B just has more extreme outliers.

    It seems like, if we follow the same rules for cultural Fst as genetic Fst, B will have lower Fst from other world populations than A, due to its higher internal variation. But it’s a bit more questionable to me whether B really is less distant from other cultures than A, if A and B really do have the same means and B is just more variable. Is this fundamentally different from genetic Fst or am I overthinking it?

    (Not only does it seem like population size could increase variability, but also relaxation of cultural norms.)

    Not to say it’s not a useful measure, but those are some things that occur to me.

    Also, just for interest, the data matrices are at: http://culturaldistance.muth.io, so plunking those into the methods that seem to work for genetic fst: https://imgur.com/a/vQE45yj

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