Reasoning About Cultural and Genetic Transmission: Developmental and Cross-Cultural Evidence From Peru, Fiji, and the United States on How People Make Inferences About Trait Transmission

Cristina Moya, Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

19 Scopus citations


Using samples from three diverse populations, we test evolutionary hypotheses regarding how people reason about the inheritance of various traits. First, we provide a framework for differentiat-ing the outputs of mechanisms that evolved for reasoning about variation within and between (a) biological taxa and (b) culturally evolved ethnic categories from (c) a broader set of beliefs and categories that are the outputs of structured learning mechanisms. Second, we describe the results of a modified "switched-at-birth" vignette study that we administered among children and adults in Puno (Peru), Yasawa (Fiji), and adults in the United States. This protocol permits us to study perceptions of prenatal and social transmission pathways for various traits and to differentiate the latter into vertical (i.e., parental) versus horizontal (i.e., peer) cultural influence. These lines of evidence suggest that people use all three mechanisms to reason about the distribution of traits in the population. Participants at all three sites develop expectations that morphological traits are under prenatal influence, and that belief traits are more culturally influenced. On the other hand, each population holds culturally specific beliefs about the degree of social influence on non-morphological traits and about the degree of vertical transmission-with only participants in the United States expecting parents to have much social influence over their children. We reinterpret people's differentiation of trait transmission pathways in light of humans' evolutionary history as a cultural species. Copyright

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)595-610
Number of pages16
JournalTopics in Cognitive Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015



  • Adoption paradigm
  • Cognitive development
  • Cross-cultural psychology
  • Dual inheritance theory
  • Folkbiology
  • Folksociology
  • Social learning
  • Vertical transmission

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology

Cite this