Inferring processes of cultural transmission: The critical role of rare variants in distinguishing neutrality from novelty biases

James P. O’Dwyer, Anne Kandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Neutral evolution assumes that there are no selective forces distinguishing different variants in a population. Despite this striking assumption, many recent studies have sought to assess whether neutrality can provide a good description of different episodes of cultural change. One approach has been to test whether neutral predictions are consistent with observed progeny distributions, recording the number of variants that have produced a given number of new instances within a specified time interval: a classic example is the distribution of baby names. Using an overlapping generations model, we show that these distributions consist of two phases: a power-law phase with a constant exponent of _3=2, followed by an exponential cut-off for variants with very large numbers of progeny. Maximum-likelihood estimations of the model parameters provide a direct way to establish whether observed empirical patterns are consistent with neutral evolution. We apply our approach to a complete dataset of baby names from Australia. Crucially, we show that analyses based on only the most popular variants, as is often the case in studies of cultural evolution, can provide misleading evidence for underlying transmission hypotheses. While neutrality provides a plausible description of progeny distributions of abundant variants, rare variants deviate from neutrality. Further, we develop a simulation framework that allows the detection of alternative cultural transmission processes. We show that anti-novelty bias is able to replicate the complete progeny distribution of the Australian dataset. This article is part of the themed issue ‘Process and pattern in innovations from cells to societies’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160426
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1735
StatePublished - Dec 5 2017


  • Anti-novelty bias
  • Cultural transmission
  • Neutral evolution
  • Power law
  • Pro-novelty bias
  • Progeny distribution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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