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Keywords:

  • gene-culture co-evolution;
  • rapid evolution;
  • Rogers’ paradox;
  • social learning

Abstract

Culture is widely thought to be beneficial when social learning is less costly than individual learning and thus may explain the enormous ecological success of humans. Rogers (1988. Does biology constrain culture. Am. Anthropol. 90: 819–831) contradicted this common view by showing that the evolution of social learning does not necessarily increase the net benefits of learned behaviours in a variable environment. Using simulation experiments, we re-analysed extensions of Rogers’ model after relaxing the assumption that genetic evolution is much slower than cultural evolution. Our results show that this assumption is crucial for Rogers’ finding. For many parameter settings, genetic and cultural evolution occur on the same time scale, and feedback effects between genetic and cultural dynamics increase the net benefits. Thus, by avoiding the costs of individual learning, social learning can increase ecological success. Furthermore, we found that rapid evolution can limit the evolution of complex social learning strategies, which have been proposed to be widespread in animals.