Homology and Phylogenetic Inference in Biological and Material Cultural Evolution

  • Ilya TëmkinEmail author


Different aspects of human culture are being increasingly used as traits for historical reconstruction using phylogenetic approaches. Languages, texts, artifacts, and even ideas are decomposed into discrete characters that are configured into character state matrices and subjected to formal similarity analyses based on an explicit optimality criterion or a particular clustering algorithm. While much of the discussion concerned patterns of relatedness revealed by these studies, relatively little attention was paid to the very foundational theoretical assumptions at the core of any phylogenetic inference. Given the increasing popularity and success of phylogenetic approaches to human sociocultural evolution, it is imperative to revisit the fundamental concepts of character and homology—both derived from the study of organic evolution—to raise the question of whether an ever-increasing scope of cultural data types is amenable to a unified phylogenetic methodology or it is better accommodated by an epistemologically pluralistic framework. The first view implies that idiosyncrasies in evolutionary processes in biology and human culture are not substantial, so that simple models are a good way to approaching complex real world phenomena. The alternative perspective accents differences in the modes of cultural and biological information transmission, and suggests that these differences need to be accounted for by both theory and practice of historical reconstruction. Focusing on material cultural evolution, the present contribution explores whether ontological differences in the notions of character and homology between the natural and cultural realms are of any practical concern for cultural phylogenetics.


Character Epistemology Hierarchy theory Interaction Ontology Replication 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian InstitutionWashington, DCUSA
  2. 2.Northern Virginia Community CollegeAnnandaleUSA

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