Learned and culturally transmitted human activities are now widely recognized to have had major effects on genetic change in our species. Analyses of human genetic variation reveal hundreds of genes that have been subject to recent positive selection, many seemingly in response to human cultural activities. Some of the most distinctive features of humanity (e.g. our big brains, language, intelligence, cooperation) may be adaptive responses to our ancestors’ cultural activities. Recent empirical and theoretical studies suggest a revised view of human evolution that stresses the active role that our ancestors’ cultural practices played in driving their own evolution. Yet traditional accounts of human evolution still depict hominins as adapting to external conditions, such as climate, predators or disease, in a manner similar to other organisms, with human culture seen as a product of evolution but not a significant cause of genetic change. The traditional view remains dominant largely because the extent to which humans evolved in response to ancestral cultural activity rather than non-cultural (i.e., ecological) challenges remains unquantified. This allows instances of gene-culture coevolution to be dismissed as ‘special cases’. We propose a cutting-edge analysis of human genetic, epigenetic, environmental and cultural variation to quantify the scale of gene-culture coevolution and thereby evaluate its importance in recent human evolution. Genetic data will be sourced from the Stanford Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics, for which Feldman and Pritchard are co-directors. Our project will also identify the categories of traits that are most subject to gene-culture coevolution, as opposed to conventional selection, and interpret covariation between cultural (e.g. diet, poverty) and epigenetic data. In addition to the basic research, we will organize a workshop and engage in public-engagement activities.
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