Nature and Culture – Interaction of Cultural and Biological Evolution in an Interdisciplinary Perspective

University Research Centres (UNCE) no. 204004

The mutual relations between biological and cultural evolution represent one of today’s most important issues in interdisciplinary scientific research, bringing together both social and biological sciences. Many of the current theoretical models, together with a body of empirical data, suggest that cultural processes are inseparable from the biological traits of their bearers, which could have been shaped by different selection pressures over the course of evolution. It is possible that the precursors of culture, including complex social systems and symbolic language, have evolved as adaptations by means of biological evolution, as was the case with somatic traits. However, a notion that is also of importance to these disciplines is that culture itself creates new selection pressures, which in many respects form the human phenotype in significant ways and, in the long term, may change the human genotype as well. According to this view, on the one hand human culture has arisen thanks to the biological development of specific cognitive and other mechanisms, whilst on the other hand human culture itself creates a specific environment in which these mechanisms are selected. According to some theoretical models, the interaction between genetic and cultural processes may lead to varying developmental trajectories that may differ significantly from trajectories predicted on the basis of, for example, population genetics models. This project thus predominantly draws on current theories and empirical findings according to which culture is a part of human ecology.

The main objective of the project is to interconnect the theoretical-historical perspective with an empirical approach in order to address the issue of biological and cultural coevolution. The focus of the historical-theoretical research is on the analysis of the general problem of the relationship between nature and culture. Specifically, it involves investigations of proto-evolutionary concepts preceding the Darwinian revolution (1); in more general terms, it involves studies of interactions between philosophy and science during the development of European thought (2). Another research issue addressed by the project is the conceptualization of cultural transmission in the form of discrete units from the viewpoint of biosemiotics. The empirical part of the project addresses selected aspects of human appearance (such as eye colour) (3), whose interpopulation variation may have arisen as a consequence of the mutual activity of biological and cultural processes (4). Another intensively researched area is that of evolution-shaped psychological processes, which may influence cultural variability. Specifically, this issue is studied, for instance, in terms of the phenomenon of body ornamentation (5) or dance and singing from cross-cultural perspective. Identifying the particular factors contributing to the intra- and inter-cultural as well as intra- and inter-individual variability of presumably evolved characteristics may help clarify the complex interconnection of biological and cultural phenomena.

(1) Hladký V, Kratochvíl Z, Kočandrle R (2012) Evoluce před Darwinem, Červený Kostelec: Pavel Mervart, 245 pp.
(2) Hladký V (2013) The Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon, Ashgate, 330 pp.
(3) Kleisner K, Priplatova L, Frost P, Flegr J (2013) Trustworthy-Looking Face Meets Brown Eyes. PLoS ONE 8: e53285.
(4) Komárek S (2012) Muž jako evoluční inovace? Academia, 264 pp.
(5) Havlíček J & Roberts SC (2013). Perfume-body odor complex: An insightful model for culture-gene coevolution? In: Chemical Signals in Vertebrates XII (East, M.L. & Dehnhard, M. eds). Springer, New York. pp. 185-196.