Why do longstanding cultural phenomena such as marriage customs change over time? Why do certain forms of cultural variation persist over generations while others perish? These are some of the questions researchers will consider at SFI this month.

The workshop, “The Role of Variation in Culture: Updates in Cultural Evolution,” is being organized by Stanford faculty members James Truncer, Melissa Brown, and Marcus Feldman (SFI Science Steering Committee Member and External Professor). The School for Advanced Research, a Santa Fe-based anthropological research center (formerly the School for American Research), is co-sponsoring the event, to be held April 15-18 at SFI.

Although the notion of cultural variation has long been accepted, scholars know little about it, Brown says. “The next steps in formulating a more complete theory of cultural evolution relate to questions of variation,” she says. “We think a Darwinian evolutionary perspective can ultimately help us better understand cultural change.”

This perspective has proven successful in making sense of biological complexity, of which humans are a part, Brown says. “However, in extending Darwinian perspectives beyond genetic transmission, we need to take into account the unique attributes of cultural phenomena and the social orders in which they are embedded,” she says.

The 24 invited participants represent anthropology, archaeology, biology, classics, economics, history, political science, and sociology. A planned edited volume on cultural variation from each of these perspectives has the potential to unify diverse multi-disciplinary interests on the topic, says Truncer.

“We face an exciting, if somewhat daunting, task that will require cross- disciplinary cooperation and debate,” adds Brown. 

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