On this week’s episode of The Insight I discussed the field of cultural evolution with Richard McElreath. The author of Mathematical Models of Social Evolution, he was in a good place to explain why the field is relatively formal. This is in contrast for example to modern American cultural anthropology. Basically, formality keeps you honest and allows you to be wrong. Verbal arguments are amenable to subtle and not so subtle updating so as to dodge the acceptance that a model is false nearly indefinitely. Words are just imprecise enough that miscommunication can creep into the discourse.
I thought of this while reading The First Farmers of Europe: An Evolutionary Perspective. This book outlines the latest results from a variety of fields and refutes once and for all one particular mathematical model of how agriculture spread to Europe. I am alluding here to the “wave of advance” model for the spread of agriculture in Europe (most forcefully pushed by Albert Ammerman and L. L. Cavalli-Sforza). The general idea here is that farming spread through demographic increase and the diffusion of the excess population as a particular region achieved its carrying capacity. Like R. A. Fisher’s ambition to make evolutionary genetics as regular as the laws of thermodynamics, the proponents of this viewpoint were attempting to reduce a complex cultural process down to a few parameters.
And certainly, it was a useful null model in its time.