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Figure 3. Spelling of English surnames . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Cultural traits are transmitted from one generation to the next in a process analogous to biological inheritance. Like biological traits, they are subject to mutation, genetic drift and extinction. One trait, a person's surname, is a close model for a non-recombining neutral allele. The authors therefore have turned to some unusual tools, the phone book and the family tree, to develop mathematical models of genetic population structure and diversity. It turns out that in an interbreeding closed society such as upper-crust Europe, over 1,000 years or so everyone's family tree almost completely overlaps, and several ancestors must crop up multiple times. In a famous example, when the smoke cleared after England's 15th-century Wars of the Roses, the warring families' descendants had entirely intermixed lineages: Henry VIII was descended from the 14th-century King Edward III in four different ways.

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