Coevolution of Genes and Culture in Man


Biological and cultural evolution share the necessary conditions for evolution in general, the principles of variation, inheritance and selection that together constitute the sufficient condition for biological evolution. In addition, for cultural evolution, there are several other necessary conditions. Cultural evolution also has characteristics that are not observed in biological evolution. These are consequences of the differences in the mode of transfer of information between biological and cultural evolution (Figure 1), leading to the fact that cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Biological and cultural evolution affect each other, thus experiencing continuing coevolution. Changes in the genes have been necessary to adopt complex behavioral traits, such as the ability to speak, and changes in culture, such as diet, have caused changes in gene frequencies. Modern studies on molecular genetics suggest that coevolution of culture and genes is the most important factor in our origin and evolution.

Key Concepts

  • The necessary conditions for biological evolution, adaptive changes of gene frequencies in the populations of organisms, are variation, inheritance and selection.
  • These three phenomena, which can also be called the postulates of the theory of evolution, together also constitute a sufficient condition for biological evolution.
  • These general principles apply not only to biological evolution but also to the evolution of societies and culture – a theory which is called general Darwinism.
  • The necessary conditions for cultural evolution include, in addition to the necessary conditions for biological evolution, several other factors as for example storage, collection and accumulation of information; formation of social groups, work and division of labor between individuals; the subsequent development of society; and spoken language.
  • These similarities in the conditions for biological and cultural evolution affect the interaction between the genes and culture in a specific way making their coevolution possible.
  • Indeed, many cases of reciprocal coevolutionary interaction between the genes of human individuals or populations and the culture of the population in question have been observed.
  • Differences in gene frequencies between populations and changes in the genes of individuals have led to differences in the culture of the population in question, and vice versa, thus indicating coevolution between genes and culture.

Keywords: cooperation; diet; fitness; language; learning

Figure 1. Transfer of information in biological and cultural evolution. In biological evolution, the transfer is unidirectional and vertical, whereas in cultural evolution it is bidirectional, and vertical, horizontal or oblique – in other words, network‐like. In addition, according to Feldman and Laland , information transfer in cultural evolution is often indirect, being mediated from key individuals in the social group, or frequency dependent, derived from the individuals representing the majority in the group.
Figure 2. Harvesting of rye (Secale cereale) in Pirkkala, present day Nokia, in Finland at the very beginning of the 20th century. Photo M.A. Stark. The cultivation of cereals is an example of coevolution of man and plants. When the humankind domesticated cereal plants, such as rye, the plants gained a substantial benefit, for example increase of vitality and number and size of grains. On the other hand, cultivation of plants made the spreading out of humans more possible and easy, for which the densely inhabitation of boreal areas, such as Finland, is an example.


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Portin, Petter(Jan 2019) Coevolution of Genes and Culture in Man. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028407]