Biology-culture co-evolution in finite populations

De Boer, B., & Thompson, B. (2018). Biology-culture co-evolution in finite populations. Scientific Reports, 8: 1209. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-18928-0.
Language is the result of two concurrent evolutionary processes: Biological and cultural inheritance. An influential evolutionary hypothesis known as the moving target problem implies inherent limitations on the interactions between our two inheritance streams that result from a difference in pace: The speed of cultural evolution is thought to rule out cognitive adaptation to culturally evolving aspects of language. We examine this hypothesis formally by casting it as as a problem of adaptation in time-varying environments. We present a mathematical model of biology-culture co-evolution in finite populations: A generalisation of the Moran process, treating co-evolution as coupled non-independent Markov processes, providing a general formulation of the moving target hypothesis in precise probabilistic terms. Rapidly varying culture decreases the probability of biological adaptation. However, we show that this effect declines with population size and with stronger links between biology and culture: In realistically sized finite populations, stochastic effects can carry cognitive specialisations to fixation in the face of variable culture, especially if the effects of those specialisations are amplified through cultural evolution. These results support the view that language arises from interactions between our two major inheritance streams, rather than from one primary evolutionary process that dominates another. © 2018 The Author(s).
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