Cultural Evolution


Cultural evolution is the idea that cultural change, that is changes in socially acquired information such as knowledge or beliefs, constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares fundamental similarities with (but also some differences to) genetic evolution. While parallels between cultural and biological change have been drawn ever since Darwin provided his theory of evolution, it is only in the last few decades that this parallel has been fully pursued. Models, experiments and fieldwork has probed the details of how individuals learn from one another within societies (cultural microevolution), while comparative phylogenetic methods have been used to reconstruct long‐term cultural change and diversity over long timescales (cultural macroevolution). Key topics include language, cooperation, technology, innovation, migration and religion. The theory and field of cultural evolution can link the biological and social sciences by providing an evolutionarily based theory of cultural change and diversity.

Key Concepts

  • Culture is defined as information that is passed from individual to individual nongenetically, via social learning processes such as teaching or imitation.
  • Cultural evolution is the idea that cultural change constitutes an evolutionary process.
  • Cultural change constitutes an evolutionary process because cultural traits vary, they are inherited via social learning from individual to individual, and some cultural traits are more likely to be passed on than others.
  • Many species possess culture in the form of social learning, but few (perhaps only humans) have cumulative cultural evolution where the body of culturally evolving knowledge exceeds that which a single individual could invent or discover.
  • Cultural microevolution describes the ways in which cultural traits change within groups or societies, such as via different social learning biases.
  • Social learning biases include tendencies to learn from specific classes of individuals (e.g. one's parents, knowledgeable teachers, prestigious celebrities), learn particular kinds of things (e.g. about disgust‐inducing stimuli), or learn from others in particular situations (e.g. when uncertain).
  • Cultural macroevolution describes long‐term changes in culture at or above the level of the society and can be studied using phylogenetic methods similar to those used to reconstruct past genetic evolution.
  • Gene‐culture coevolution describes cases where culturally evolving traits alter selection pressures on genes and vice versa.
  • Common topics of study in the field of cultural evolution include language, cooperation, technology, innovation, migration and religion.
  • The theory of cultural evolution can link the biological or natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities, by providing an evolutionarily‐based theory of cultural change.

Keywords: animal culture; cooperation; cultural evolution; culture; gene‐culture coevolution; human behaviour; social learning


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Further Reading

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Mesoudi A (2011) Cultural Evolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Mesoudi, Alex(Oct 2018) Cultural Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028231]