Cultural Transmission and Evolution


Cultural transmission in our species is a cumulative inheritance system that leads to a cultural evolution process with a great adaptive value. Our genes have promoted a social learning system very effective for the transmission of learned behaviours. The ability to accumulate knowledge based on an efficient transmission process is what distinguishes human culture from other kinds of social learning present in nonhuman primates. Human behaviour is a product of two different and interacting processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Much variation in human behaviour cannot be understood without accounting for beliefs, values and other socially acquired determinants of behaviour. Thus, culture is crucial for understanding human behaviour and coevolves with biology. On the one hand, the psychobiological capacities guiding cultural processes are the product of evolution. On the other hand, culture modifies the environment in which we live and therefore determine future action of natural selection.

Key Concepts:

  • Human culture is a system of inheritance, in which people acquire skills, techniques, beliefs, values, norms, desires and so on, by imitation and teaching.

  • Cultural transmission arises from genetically evolved psychological adaptations for acquiring cultural traits from other individuals by observation and inference.

  • Cultural transmission differs from nonhuman primate social learning in that it is cumulative.

  • Cumulative cultural transmission led to a cultural evolution process with a great adaptive value.

  • Evolved psychobiological mechanisms guide the preference among different cultural variants.

  • Culture created social environments, in which specific adaptations were selected for by natural selection.

Keywords: culture; cultural evolution; dual inheritance theory; sociobiology; meme; evolutionary psychology; assessor hominids; social learning


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Castro, Laureano, and Toro, Miguel A(Oct 2010) Cultural Transmission and Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022858]