Evolution of Culture


Theories of cultural evolution are attempts to model cultural change as an evolutionary process. Drawing inspiration from Darwin's theory of evolution, there are four major contemporary approaches to the evolution of culture which differ from one another in the extent to which they see the engine of cultural evolution as analogous to Darwinian natural selection. One of the major motivations for ‘Darwinising’ culture is to incorporate the study of human behaviour into the modern synthesis and to provide a framework for the unification of the social sciences. It remains an open question how successful this project can be.

Key Concepts

  • The concept of culture is a social construction.
  • Theories of the emergence of culture as a biological adaptation need to be distinguished from theories of the transmission of culture.
  • Constructed cultural niches are an important environmental influence on genetic and cultural evolution.
  • The integration of the social sciences into the Modern Synthesis has been only partially successful.
  • Theories of cultural evolution are attempts to model change as an evolutionary process.

Keywords: modern synthesis; cultural niche; cognitive niche; dual‐inheritance; memetics; Sperber; cultural attractors


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Further Reading

Atran S (2001) The trouble with memes: inference versus imitation in cultural creation. Human Nature 12 (4): 351–381.

Aunger R (ed.) (2000) Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bradie M and Bouzat J (2016) Patterns and processes in cultural evolution. Evolutionary Biology 43 (4): 516–530.

Henrich J (2016) The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Laland KN and Galef BG (eds) (2009) The Question of Animal Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laland KN and O'Brien MJ (2011) Cultural niche construction: an introduction. Biological Theory 6 (3): 191–202.

Laland KN (2017) Darwin's Unfinished Symphony. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lewens T (2015) Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lumsden C and Wilson EO (1983) Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mesoudi A (2015) Cultural evolution: a review of theory, findings and controversies. Evolutionary Biology 43 (4): 481–497.

Sterelny K (2012) The Evolved Apprentice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Bradie, Michael(Sep 2017) Evolution of Culture. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027505]