Skip to content

Understanding Cultural Persistence

341 Eggers Hall

Add to: Outlook, ICal, Google Calendar

Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs

Trade, Development and Political Economy


Nathan Nunn

Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics

Harvard University

We examine a determinant of cultural persistence that has emerged from a class of models in evolutionary anthropology: the similarity of the environment across generations. Within these models, when the environment is more similar across generations, the traits that have evolved up to the previous generation are more likely to be optimal for the current generation. In equilibrium, a greater value is placed on tradition and there is greater cultural persistence. We test this hypothesis by measuring the variability of different climatic measures across 20-year generations from 500–1900. The first part of our analysis uses climate data with global coverage to examine variation across countries, ethnic groups, and the descendants of immigrants. We find that populations with ancestors who lived in environments with more cross-generational instability place less importance in maintaining tradition today and they also exhibit less cultural persistence over time. The second part of our analysis examines the persistence of tradition among indigenous populations from the United States and Canada. The more-narrow geographic coverage allows us to use higher quality climate data that are available at a much finer spatial and temporal resolution. We show that our findings are robust to controlling for annual variability, and to the use of an alternative instability measure that considers the cross-generational instability of the second moment (rather than the first moment) of climate.

Nathan Nunn is Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Professor Nunn was born in Canada, where he received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 2005. Professor Nunn’s primary research interests are in economic history, economic development, cultural economics, political economy and international trade. He is an NBER Faculty Research Fellow, a Research Fellow at BREAD, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA). He is currently a co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics. 

For more information, contact Devashish Mitra,

Sponsored by: Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Trade, Development and Political Economy Series

Open to




Contact to request accommodations

Exterior of Maxwell in black and white when there was no Eggers building

We’re Turning 100!

To mark our centennial in the fall of 2024, the Maxwell School will hold special events and engagement opportunities to celebrate the many ways—across disciplines and borders—our community ever strives to, as the Oath says, “transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Throughout the year leading up to the centennial, engagement opportunities will be held for our diverse, highly accomplished community that now boasts more than 38,500 alumni across the globe.