Centre for Philosophy of Science Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab

Fiona Jordan


Course Description

In the last decade, cultural phylogenetics has emerged as a major research approach to the evolution of language and culture, providing a systematic and quantitative framework that allows anthropologists and linguists to test hypotheses about human diversity whilst acknowledging the fact that human populations, their languages, and cultural features, are related. The 'curious parallels' between biological and linguistic/cultural evolution – inheritance, change, hybridisation, drift, and selection – mean that methods developed to study processes in evolutionary biology can and have been usefully employed across fields. We'll begin with a general introduction to phylogenetics to familiarise participants with the wide range of techniques available to answer research questions. The course will use both theoretical and practical examples to concentrate on the two main strands of the phylogenetic approach. These are (1) building trees and networks from linguistic and cultural data, and (2) using phylogenies to test hypotheses with comparative methods. Throughout the course we'll discuss the different research questions one can and cannot address with a comparative phylogenetic approach (and why), and students will be able to weigh the relative merits of the approach in terms of practical issues, empirical challenges, and theoretical critiques.

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Phylogenetic Thinking in Language and Culture

  1. Archibald, JK, et al (2003). Bayesian Inference of Phylogeny: a Non-Technical Primer. Taxon 52(2): 187-191.
  2. Atkinson, QD & Gray, RD (2005). Curious Parallels and Curious Connections: Phylogenetic Thinking in Biology and Historical Linguistics. Systematic Biology 54(4): 513-526.
  3. Gray, RD, et al (2007) The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with phylogenies). Biological Theory 2(4): 360-375
  4. Mace, R & Pagel, M. (1994) The Comparative Method in Anthropology. Current Anthropology 35(5): 549-564


Lecture 2: Inferring Trees and Networks

  1. Matthews, L et al (2011) Testing for Divergent Transmission Histories Among Cultural Characters: a Study using Bayesian Phylogenetic Methods and Iranian Tribal Textile Data. PLoS ONE 6(4): e14810.
  2. Nichols, J & Warnow, T. (2008). Tutorial on Computational Linguistic Phylogeny. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5): 760-820.
  3. Ronquist, F et al (2009). Bayesian Phylogenetic Analysis. In P Lemey et al. (eds) The Phylogenetic Handbook. [up to §7.5]


Lecture 3: Asking Cultural Evolutionary Questions

  1. Borgerhoff Mulder, M et al (2006) Macroevolutionary Studies of Cultural Trait Variation: The Importance of Transmission Mode. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 52-64.
  2. Jordan, FM (in press) Comparative Phylogenetic Methods and the Study of Pattern and Process in Kinship. In P McConvell & I Keen (eds), Kinship Systems: Change and Reconstruction.
  3. Nunn, CL (2011). The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology. University of Chicago Press. (Chapters 3 and 7, Chapter 1 for interest).
  4. Ord, T & Martins, EP (2010) Evolution of Behaviour: Phylogeny and the Origins of Present-Day Diversity. In D Westneat D & C Fox (eds) Evolutionary Behavioural Ecology pp 108-128


Lecture 4: Modelling Cultural Change and Inferring Ancestral States

  1. Ronquist, F. (2004). Bayesian Inference of Character Evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19(9): 475-481.
  2. Jordan, FM et al. (2009) Matrilocal Residence is Ancestral in Austronesian Societies. Proc Roy Soc B 276: 195-201
  3. Currie, TE et al. (2010) Rise and Fall of Political Complexity in Island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature 467: 801-804


Lecture 5: Detecting Evolutionary Processes in Cultural and Linguistic Evolution

  1. Atkinson, Q et al (2008) Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Science 319: 588
  2. Currie, TE (2013) Cultural Evolution Branches out. Cross-Cultural Research, 47(2)
  3. Dunn, M et al (2011) Evolved Structure of Language Shows Lineage-Specific Trends in Word-order Universals. Nature 473: 79-82