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Commentary: Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice vs. wheat agriculture

Roberts, S. G. (2015). Commentary: Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice vs. wheat agriculture. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 950. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00950.
Talhelm et al. (2014) test the hypothesis that activities which require more intensive collaboration foster more collectivist cultures. They demonstrate that a measure of collectivism correlates with the proportion of cultivated land devoted to rice paddies, which require more work to grow and maintain than other grains. The data come from individual measures of provinces in China. While the data is analyzed carefully, one aspect that is not directly controlled for is the historical relations between these provinces. Spurious correlations can occur between cultural traits that are inherited from ancestor cultures or borrowed through contact, what is commonly known as Galton's problem (Roberts and Winters, 2013). Effectively, Talhelm et al. treat the measures of each province as independent samples, while in reality both farming practices (e.g., Renfrew, 1997; Diamond and Bellwood, 2003; Lee and Hasegawa, 2011) and cultural values (e.g., Currie et al., 2010; Bulbulia et al., 2013) can be inherited or borrowed. This means that the data may be composed of non-independent points, inflating the apparent correlation between rice growing and collectivism. The correlation between farming practices and collectivism may be robust, but this cannot be known without an empirical control for the relatedness of the samples. Talhelm et al. do discuss this problem in the supplementary materials of their paper. They acknowledge that a phylogenetic analysis could be used to control for relatedness, but that at the time of publication there were no genetic or linguistic trees of descent which are detailed enough to suit this purpose. In this commentary I would like to make two points. First, since the original publication, researchers have created new linguistic trees that can provide the needed resolution. For example, the Glottolog phylogeny (Hammarström et al., 2015) has at least three levels of classification for the relevant varieties, though this does not have branch lengths (see also “reference” trees produced in List et al., 2014). Another recently published phylogeny uses lexical data to construct a phylogenetic tree for many language varieties within China (List et al., 2014). In this commentary I use these lexical data to estimate cultural contact between different provinces, and test whether these measures explain variation in rice farming pracices. However, the second point is that Talhelm et al. focus on descent (vertical transmission), while it may be relevant to control for both descent and borrowing (horizontal transmission). In this case, all that is needed is some measure of cultural contact between groups, not necessarily a unified tree of descent. I use a second source of linguistic data to calculate simple distances between languages based directly on the lexicon. These distances reflect borrowing as well as descent.
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