What is Biocultural Evolution?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the concept of biocultural evolution. First, you'll learn what this term means and then you'll find out, through numerous examples, how culture, biology, and evolution may intersect.

What is Biocultural Evolution?

Often, when people think of evolution, they think of it in terms of genetic changes. For example, there could be a mutation in a gene that gives an organism with increased chances of reproduction and survival and so that mutation is passed on to later generations. As more and more offspring survive thanks to this new trait, they pass on this trait to ever more offspring and so the whole species evolves from there. This is the basic biological gist of evolution.

But evolution, especially with people, may have a cultural component to it. This is termed biocultural evolution, which refers to the notion that there is an interplay of biological and cultural factors that shape and react to evolutionary changes. This lesson goes over the fundamentals of this concept.

Evolution Affected by Culture

It is possible that the evolution of our species is affected by cultural developments. And there are two general sides to this.

One side goes like this. You are probably familiar with lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar found in milk. It is digested thanks to an enzyme called lactase. A mammal's body must use valuable nutritional resources in order to produce this lactase. It doesn't come out of thin air after all!

As a result, once a mammal has been weaned off of the mother's milk, there's no need to produce lactase. It's technically a waste of vital energy to produce this enzyme since the animal won't be deriving any nutrients from milk anymore.

However, many people today still produce lactase long after they should've stopped. This wasn't the case about 10,000 years ago because people didn't milk animals for sustenance. However, once they started doing so (especially those of European ancestry), continuing the production of lactase actually became advantageous for survival in people who had access to dairy.

As you know, milk does provide us with numerous nutrients. So if an adult person could digest milk then it may be worth using the energy to produce the lactase for its digestion. In other words, the nutritional benefits of milk may outweigh the energy costs to produce the lactase. Thus, dairy farming (a cultural trait) has influenced the biological evolution (lactase production) in people.

The other side to how evolution is affected by culture goes like this. Cheetahs only exist in hot climates. They cannot exist in polar climates. This is because their bodies have not evolved the appropriate genetic responses to the stresses of cold. People, when naked, have not done so either. We can only last in a cold climate for a very short period of time (when naked).

Yet many people live in colder climates they should otherwise die in. Why? Culture. We've created clothing to help us adapt to a cold climate without having to undergo any significant genetic changes in order to live in such a climate for the long-term. In this case, clothing (culture) has prevented the development of biological evolutionary traits that can help people to naturally (without clothing) survive in the cold.

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