Conformity in mate choice, the overlooked social component of animal and human culture

Sabine Noebel, Antoine Jacquet, Guillaume Isabel, Arnaud Pocheville, Paul Seabright, and Etienne Danchin


Although conformity as a major driver for human cultural evolution is a well-accepted and intensely studied phenomenon, its importance for non-human animal culture has been largely overlooked until recently. This limited for decades the possibility of studying the roots of human culture. Here, we provide a historical review of the study of conformity in both humans and non-human animals. We identify gaps in knowledge and propose an evolutionary route towards the sophisticated cultural processes that characterize humanity. A landmark in the study of conformity is Solomon Asch's famous experiment on humans in 1955. By contrast, interest in conformity among evolutionary biologists has only become salient since the turn of the new millennium. A striking result of our review is that, although studies of conformity have examined many biological contexts, only one looked at mate choice. This is surprising because mate choice is probably the only context in which conformity has self-reinforcing advantages across generations. Within a metapopulation, i.e. a group of subpopulations connected by dispersing individuals, dispersers able to conform to the local preference for a given type of mate have a strong and multigenerational fitness advantage. This is because once females within one subpopulation locally show a bias for one type of males, immigrant females who do not conform to the local trend have sons, grandsons, etc. of the non-preferred phenotype, which negatively and cumulatively affects fitness over generations in a process reminiscent of the Fisher runaway process. This led us to suggest a sex-driven origin of conformity, indicating a possible evolutionary route towards animal and human culture that is rooted in the basic, and thus ancient, social constraints acting on mating preferences within a metapopulation. In a generic model, we show that dispersal among subpopulations within a metapopulation can effectively maintain independent Fisher runaway processes within subpopulations, while favouring the evolution of social learning and conformity at the metapopulation scale; both being essential for the evolution of long-lasting local traditions. The proposed evolutionary route to social learning and conformity casts surprising light on one of the major processes that much later participated in making us human. We further highlight several research avenues to define the spectrum of conformity better, and to account for its complexity. Future studies of conformity should incorporate experimental manipulation of group majority. We also encourage the study of potential links between conformity and mate copying, animal aggregations, and collective actions. Moreover, validation of the sex-driven origin of conformity will rest on the capacity of human and evolutionary sciences to investigate jointly the origin of social learning and conformity. This constitutes a stimulating common agenda and militates for a rapprochement between these two currently largely independent research areas.


Fisher runaway process; conformity in animals; conformity in humans; cultural evolution; mate choice; sexual selection;

See also

Published in

Biological Reviews, vol. 98, n. 1, February 2023, pp. 132–149