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Aguilar E.,City University of New York | Aguilar E.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Ghirlanda S.,City University of New York | Ghirlanda S.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Ghirlanda S.,Brooklyn College
Theoretical Population Biology | Year: 2015

The mathematical study of genealogies has yielded important insights in population biology, such as the ability to estimate the time to the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of a sample of genetic sequences or of a group of individuals. Here we introduce a model of cultural genealogies that is a step toward answering similar questions for cultural traits. In our model individuals can inherit from a variable, potentially large number of ancestors, rather than from a fixed, small number of ancestors (one or two) as is typical of genetic evolution. We first show that, given a sample of individuals, a cultural common ancestor does not necessarily exist. We then introduce a related concept: the most recent unique ancestor (MRUA), i.e., the most recent single individual who is the earliest cultural ancestor of the sample. We show that, under neutral evolution, the time to the MRUA can be staggeringly larger than the time to MRCA in a single ancestor model, except when the average number of learning opportunities per individuals is small. Our results point out that the properties of cultural genealogies may be very different from those of genetic genealogies, with potential implications for reconstructing the histories of cultural traits. © 2014 Elsevier Inc.

Enquist M.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Enquist M.,University of Stockholm | Ghirlanda S.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Ghirlanda S.,Brooklyn College | And 2 more authors.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences | Year: 2011

Previous work on mathematical models of cultural evolution has mainly focused on the diffusion of simple cultural elements. However, a characteristic feature of human cultural evolution is the seemingly limitless appearance of new and increasingly complex cultural elements. Here, we develop a general modelling framework to study such cumulative processes, in which we assume that the appearance and disappearance of cultural elements are stochastic events that depend on the current state of culture. Five scenarios are explored: evolution of independent cultural elements, stepwise modification of elements, differentiation or combination of elements and systems of cultural elements. As one application of our framework, we study the evolution of cultural diversity (in time as well as between groups). © 2011 The Royal Society.

De Barra M.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Eriksson K.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution | Strimling P.,Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution
Journal of Medical Internet Research | Year: 2014

Background: Medical treatments with no direct effect (like homeopathy) or that cause harm (like bloodletting) are common across cultures and throughout history. How do such treatments spread and persist? Most medical treatments result in a range of outcomes: some people improve while others deteriorate. If the people who improve are more inclined to tell others about their experiences than the people who deteriorate, ineffective or even harmful treatments can maintain a good reputation. Objective: The intent of this study was to test the hypothesis that positive outcomes are overrepresented in online medical product reviews, to examine if this reputational distortion is large enough to bias people's decisions, and to explore the implications of this bias for the cultural evolution of medical treatments. Methods: We compared outcomes of weight loss treatments and fertility treatments in clinical trials to outcomes reported in 1901 reviews on Amazon. Then, in a series of experiments, we evaluated people's choice of weight loss diet after reading different reviews. Finally, a mathematical model was used to examine if this bias could result in less effective treatments having a better reputation than more effective treatments. Results: Data are consistent with the hypothesis that people with better outcomes are more inclined to write reviews. After 6 months on the diet, 93% (64/69) of online reviewers reported a weight loss of 10 kg or more while just 27% (19/71) of clinical trial participants experienced this level of weight change. A similar positive distortion was found in fertility treatment reviews. In a series of experiments, we show that people are more inclined to begin a diet with many positive reviews, than a diet with reviews that are representative of the diet's true effect. A mathematical model of medical cultural evolution shows that the size of the positive distortion critically depends on the shape of the outcome distribution. Conclusions: Online reviews overestimate the benefits of medical treatments, probably because people with negative outcomes are less inclined to tell others about their experiences. This bias can enable ineffective medical treatments to maintain a good reputation. ©Mícheál de Barra, Kimmo Eriksson, Pontus Strimling.

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