Cultural selection drives the evolution of human communication systems

Monica Tamariz, T. Mark Ellison, Dale J. Barr, Nicolas Fay

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    31 Citations (Scopus)


    Human communication systems evolve culturally, but the evolutionary mechanisms that drive this evolution are not well understood. Against a baseline that communication variants spread in a population following neutral evolutionary dynamics (also known as drift models), we tested the role of two cultural selection models: coordination- and content-biased. We constructed a parametrized mixed probabilistic model of the spread of communicative variants in four 8-person laboratory micro-societies engaged in a simple communication game. We found that selectionist models, working in combination, explain the majority of the empirical data. The best-fitting parameter setting includes an egocentric bias and a content bias, suggesting that participants retained their own previously used communicative variants unless they encountered a superior (content-biased) variant, in which case it was adopted. This novel pattern of results suggests that (i) a theory of the cultural evolution of human communication systems must integrate selectionist models and (ii) human communication systems are functionally adaptive complex systems.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number20140488
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
    Issue number1788
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2014


    • cultural evolution
    • selection
    • language evolution
    • drift
    • neutral evolution
    • coordination bias
    • content bias


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