On the nature of cultural transmission networks: evidence from Fijian villages for adaptive learning biases

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011 Apr 12;366(1567):1139-48. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0323.


Unlike other animals, humans are heavily dependent on cumulative bodies of culturally learned information. Selective processes operating on this socially learned information can produce complex, functionally integrated, behavioural repertoires-cultural adaptations. To understand such non-genetic adaptations, evolutionary theorists propose that (i) natural selection has favoured the emergence of psychological biases for learning from those individuals most likely to possess adaptive information, and (ii) when these psychological learning biases operate in populations, over generations, they can generate cultural adaptations. Many laboratory experiments now provide evidence for these psychological biases. Here, we bridge from the laboratory to the field by examining if and how these biases emerge in a small-scale society. Data from three cultural domains-fishing, growing yams and using medicinal plants-show that Fijian villagers (ages 10 and up) are biased to learn from others perceived as more successful/knowledgeable, both within and across domains (prestige effects). We also find biases for sex and age, as well as proximity effects. These selective and centralized oblique transmission networks set up the conditions for adaptive cultural evolution.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Female
  • Fiji
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Social Behavior*