Most human populations are subdivided into ethnic groups which have self-ascribed membership and are marked by seemingly arbitrary traits such as distinctive styles of dress or speech. Existing explanations of ethnicity do not adequately explain the origin and maintenance of group marking. Here we develop a mathematical model which shows that groups distinguished by both differences in social norms and in arbitrary markers can emerge and remain stable despite significant mixing between them, if (1) people preferentially interact in mutually beneficial social interaction with people who have the same marker as they do, and (2) they acquire their markers and social behaviors by imitating successful individuals. We also show that the propensity to interact with people with markers like oneself may be favored by natural selection under plausible conditions.
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