Gregor Mendel, Meet Florence Nightingale: Summaries and Findings

Summary of: Gregor Mendel, Meet Florence Nightingale: Summaries and Findings

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Inspection of the genetic relatedness of two groups of rice farmers, one whose circumstances necessitated cooperation, and another group of hillside farmers whose agricultural practices enabled more independence, probed for evidence of how "ecological feedback can influence social structure, and note how these processes leave recoverable traces in population genetic structure."

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Santa Fe Institute Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 1
Spring, 2005


  • This is an example of interdisciplinary research capable of probing the complexities of human cooperation, using linguists, geneticists, anthropologists and computer scientists to examine the interactions among environmental circumstances, biological relationships, and cultural practices.
  • Settled agriculturists whose irrigation needs require the cooperative creation of public goods associated with a fixed territory tend to intermarry more than agriculturists who do not use large-scale irrigation and who move their plots from time to time. Although simple, this is a good example of the coevolution of cultural and biological aspects of human group behavior.

Comparisons of the genetic relatedness of two populations enable the kind of multidisciplinary convergence required for cooperation studies: University of Arizona professor of anthropology Stephen Lansing, after thirty years of study in Indonesia, teamed up with Santa Fe Institute colleagues to "build a new microscope and aim it at the emergence of patterns of social structure through time." Population genetics showed that lowland farmers who had to stay in one place and work cooperatively with neighbors to maintain shared irrigation resources were more closely genetically related than highland rice farmers who had less permanent connections to particular farmlands and to their neighbors. An observed difference in genetic relatedness between two culturally similar groups whose circumstances required different degrees of cooperation can be explained by a wide variety of factors, including "marriage rules, migration, language drift, historical changes in modes of production. Lansing et. al. used agent-based modeling to "simulate what might have led up to the patterns we see in the data."