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October 29, 2020 61 min

Organisms aren’t the only products of the evolutionary process. Cultural products such as writing, art, and music also undergo change over time, subject to both the constraints of the physical environment and the psychologies of those who make them. In recent years, the study of cultural evolution has exploded with new insights — revelations into the dynamics of how culture is transmitted, how it mutates under different pressures, and why some forms are remarkably resilient and stable across time and space. Just as in biology, patterns in the structures of our artifacts converge on universals and diverge to meet the needs of their distinct environments. Certain forces ratchet up complexity in culture, whereas others act like gravity and draw the works of different societies into shared basins of attraction. Finding the fundamentals behind both the unity and the diversity of cultures, and what cultural evolution does and doesn’t have in common with biological evolution, is a field of rich mystery. New research into structural and cognitive constraints on culture leads us into some of the most fertile questions known to science…

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week we speak to SFI Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow, Omidyar Fellow, AND ASU-SFI Center Fellow Helena Miton about her work on cultural evolution — namely, her recent Royal Society Proceedings B paper on "How material constraints affect the cultural evolution of rhythm" with Thomas Wolf, Cordula Vesper, Günther Knoblich, and Dan Sperber and the Current Anthropology pre-print she co-authored on "The predictable evolution of letter shapes: An emergent script of West Africa recapitulates historical change in writing systems" with Piers Kelly, James Winters, and Olivier Morin.

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a donation at — and/or rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Thank you for listening!

Check out Helena’s SFI Page, Google Scholar Page, and Twitter Account.

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Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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