Matthews C, Roberts AG & Caldwell CA (2012) Opportunity to assimilate and pressure to discriminate can generate cultural divergence in the laboratory. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33 (6), pp. 759-770. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.06.004
Formal models of cultural evolution have illustrated circumstances under which behavioral traits that have no inherent advantage over others can undergo positive selection pressure. One situation in which this may occur is when the behavior functions as a social marker, and there is pressure to identify oneself as a member of a particular group. Our aim in the current study was to determine whether participants organized into subpopulations could effectively exploit variation in a completely novel behavior to advertise themselves as belonging to a particular subpopulation, such that discrimination between in-group and out-group members was possible and subpopulations exhibited increasing distinctiveness. Eighty participants took part, organized into four subpopulations, each comprised of five four-member generations. They each completed a tower-building task, used in previous experimental studies of cultural evolution. An incentive payment structure was imposed with the aim of motivating participants to advertise themselves as belonging to a particular subpopulation, and to distinguish in-group members from members of other subpopulations. The first generation were exposed to photographs of randomly-assigned "seed" towers, and later generations were exposed to photographs of the towers built by the members of the previous generation of their own subpopulation. Participants were able to discriminate towers built by in-group members of the same generation, from towers built by out-group members. Over generations, tower designs evolved such that they were increasingly identifiable as belonging to a particular subpopulation. Arbitrary traits, which had no prior advantage, became associated with group membership, providing empirical support for theoretical models.
Evolution and Human Behavior: Volume 33, Issue 6