04/24/2017 Colloquium Series - Nathan Nunn: “Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change”
From David Price
When does culture persist and when does it change? We examine a determinant of extent of cultural persistence that has been put forth in the evolutionary anthropology literature: the stability of the environment. A prediction, which is standard in a variety of micro-founded models, is that valuing tradition and placing greater importance on maintaining the customs of the previous generation is relatively more beneficial in stable environments. When the environment is stable, the culture of the previous generation provides valuable information that is relevant in this generation. We test this hypothesis by measuring the stability of average temperature across 20-year generations between 500 and 1900. Looking across countries, ethnic groups, and descendants of immigrants, we find that groups with ancestors who lived in environments with more stability, place a greater importance in maintaining tradition today. These populations also exhibit more persistent cultural traits, and traditions that are less likely to undergo change.