Recently, Joseph Henrich of UBC has been promoting his cultural brain hypothesis. The goal is to explain a selection pressure behind the development of the human brain and general intelligence. The basic premise is that our brains evolved to be better and better at accurately replicating cultural information (or memes) between generations. A secondary part of his hypothesis is that there was a tight co-evolution between culture and the genes that shape us.

This seems contrary to the more orthodox thinking of that genes shaped the base of humans largely without large-scale culture (when we were small hunter-gatherer tribes and thus culture was minimal), and then recently (on an evolutionary time scale) large-scale culture 'turned on' and there has not been a sufficient time for this to produce large genetic differences. In simplest terms, the co-evolution was minimal and instead we should think of the key players being gene evolution followed by cultural evolution (on different timescales).

To confuse things further, some scientists (like Satoshi Kanazawa of LSE) view most of what we associated with the 'perks' of human brain (such as general intelligence) as mal-adaptive on the individual level. Thus there seems to be a large distinction between the 3 general threads, which raises the question:

What is the key evidence for the cultural brain hypothesis and gene-culture co-evolution?

The only evidence I know of potential recent co-evolution of culture and genes is Dediu & Ladd's (2007) suggestion that the split between tonal and atonal languages is related to a recent (~6k years ago) mutation in the ASPM gene. Is there other evidence of recent co-evolution between genes and large-scale culture?

Related questions

  • $\begingroup$ are you interested strictly in genetics or epigenetics as well (particularly, changes in how genes are expressed)? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Milot, et al. (2011) provide evidence of relatively large change in behavior linked to genetics in a Québécois community over a short period of 140 years. Thus, the genetic change affecting behavior on small timescales is definitely possible, just need to exhibit a stronger link to co-evolution with culture. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ Probably the fact that the neolithic revolution coincided with large extinctions in Y haplogroups. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4381518 But of course it could still be a coincidence. "Evolution" and "recent" don't go too well together, so did you really mean to ask your question like that "evidence of recent co-evolution" not "recent evidence of co-evolution"? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ The edge.org article you link says "One of the ideas I've been pursuing is that after the origins of agriculture, there was an intense period that continues today of intergroup competition"... which has actually been "proven" (if you don't find the coincidence as the likely explanation) by the Karmin paper in my previous comment. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ nature.com/articles/s41467-018-04375-6 supposedly has some math models to in support of Karmin's result being less than a coincidence. I didn't read the details. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 20:17

1 Answer 1


"evidence of recent co-evolution between genes and large-scale culture

This 2018 PLOS Computation Biology simulation study - The Cultural Brain Hypothesis examined the data from animals and humans. It found a relationship between brain size, adaptive knowledge, social learning, group size, and lifespan across the animal kingdom.

  • relationships between brain size, group size, innovation, social learning, mating structures, and the length of the juvenile period that are supported by the existing empirical literature.

The study found evidence of cumulative cultural evolution explaining the brain human sizes.


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