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Rules as the Impetus of Cultural Evolution

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In this paper I put forward a thesis regarding the anatomy of “cultural evolution”, in particular the way the “cultural” transmission of behavioral patterns came to piggyback, through us humans, on the transmission effected by genetic evolution. I claim that what grounds and supports this new kind of transmission is a complex behavioral “meta-pattern” that makes it possible to grasp a pattern as something that “ought to be”, i.e. that transforms the pattern into what we can call a rule. (Here I draw especially on the philosophical insights of Wilfrid Sellars.) In this way I interlink empirical research done in evolution theory with some more speculative philosophical theories, thus shedding new light on the former and adding an empirical footing to the latter.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Tomasello (1999, pp. 2–4) exposes the reasons why we need to take cultural transmission of behavioral patterns seriously in the following way: “The fact is, there simply has not been enough time for normal processes of biological evolution involving genetic variation and natural selection to have created, one by one, each of the cognitive skills necessary for modern humans to invent and maintain complex tool-use industries and technologies, complex forms of symbolic communication and representation, and complex social organizations and institutions… There is only one possible solution to this puzzle. That is, there is only one known biological mechanism that could bring about these kinds of changes in behavior and cognition in so short a time whether that time be thought of as 6 million, 2 million, or one-quarter of a million years. This biological mechanism is social or cultural transmission, which works on time scales many orders of magnitude faster than those of organic evolution.”

  2. 2.

    Of course, not everybody claims that the ability to imitate is sufficient for the emergence of culture. Candidate abilities which have been proposed for features that must be added include shared intentionality (Tomasello et al. 2005), language (Bickerton 2005), recursive syntax (Hauser et al. 2002), pedagogy (Gergely and Csibra 2006), categorizing behavior (Castro and Toro 2004) etc. We will be particularly interested in the last of these proposals.

  3. 3.

    Within twentieth century philosophy, Michel Foucault became notorious for stressing—perhaps excessively—this aspect of acculturation (see esp. Foucault 1975).

  4. 4.

    Tennie et al. (2009, p. 2411) write: “Teaching is present in all human societies we know of (Kruger and Tomasello 1996), and it is clearly not an everyday activity among chimpanzees or other non-human primates—though something in this direction may occur occasionally (…).” See also Warneken and Tomasello (2009).

  5. 5.

    Gergely and Csibra (ibid., p. 241) argue that “pedagogy” is “a primary species-specific cognitive adaptation to ensure fast, efficient, and relevance-proof learning of cultural knowledge in humans under conditions of cognitive opacity of cultural forms”.

  6. 6.

    See esp. Simon (1990, p. 1665): “Because docility—receptivity to social influence—contributes greatly to fitness in the human species, it will be positively selected. As a consequence, society can impose a ‘tax' on the gross benefits gained by individuals from docility by inducing docile individuals to engage in altruistic behaviors. Limits on rationality in the face of environmental complexity prevent the individual from avoiding this ‘tax'”. Cf. also Castro and Toro (ibid.).

  7. 7.

    We can speculate that the normative attitudes may be based on something akin to Gendler's (2008a, b) aliefs.

  8. 8.

    The case for the rules of language not being able to be generally explicit was made, most famously, by Wittgenstein (1953). His point was that an explicit rule, a rule in the form of a “symbolic” (linguistic) object, must be understood, i.e. we must be able to interpret it, and if we agree that making something into a symbol, i.e. granting it a meaning, is a matter of rules, a successful interpretation must be a matter of us using the right rules—hence coming to understand a rule would presuppose understanding other rules.

  9. 9.

    See Brandom (1994, Chapter I) for a thorough discussion of this issue.

  10. 10.

    See Peregrin (2010) for a more detailed discussion of Sellars' standpoint.

  11. 11.

    See Skyrms (2004).

  12. 12.

    See Pounstone (1992). In evolution game theory we often encounter the closely related Hawk and Dove game—see Maynard Smith (1982).

  13. 13.

    For accounts of human sociality with greater stress on the first concept see, e.g., Skyrms (1996) or Binmore (2005); for those focusing on the second, see, e.g. Axelrod (1984) or Bowles and Gintis (2011).

  14. 14.

    See the elaborations of Lewis' (1969) theory of convention by Cubit and Sugden (2003) or Sillari (2013).

  15. 15.

    See Tummolini et al. (2013).

  16. 16.

    Guala (2012) argues that the normative dimension is not added to the originally non-normative convention; that the Lewisian convention cannot but be normative from the very beginning.

  17. 17.

    See Le and Boyd (2007).

  18. 18.

    Axelrod (1984) was the first to show that in such settings strategies like tit-for-tat need not be doomed to extinction. More exact characterization is offered by the so called “folk theorem” (see, e.g., Binmore 2005).

  19. 19.

    See McKenzie Alexander (2007) or Spiekerman (2009).

  20. 20.

    Tomasello et al. (2012, p. 673) speak about the psychological background of this process as a “new group-mindedness” that “creates cultural conventions, norms, and institutions (all characterized by collective intentionality), with knowledge of a specific set of these marking individuals as members of a particular cultural group”. See also McElrath et al. (2003).

  21. 21.

    See Woodcock and Heath (2002), Nowak (2006), or West et al. (2007).

  22. 22.

    See Joyce (2006) or McKenzie Alexander (2007).

  23. 23.

    To be sure, normative attitudes may also conceivably come to diverge, which would mean the disintegration of the corresponding rule. However, as long as they are in place, they constitute the roles which an individual move may fail to respect, and this, in some cases, may bring him some advantage.

  24. 24.

    The notion was later elaborated by a number of authors; see especially Skyrms (2010).

  25. 25.

    The importance of such statuses—under the headings of “prestige” or “reputation”—has been stressed by many authors (see, e.g., Frank 1988, or Henrich and Gil-White 2001). And to avoid misunderstanding, let me also stress that connecting the human kind of communication with trust and responsibility is not saying that lying, deceiving or hiding one's intentions would be impossible or marginal. But the framework which makes communication, and hence also deception, possible, cannot be itself based on deception—we saw that there is nothing to be gained from violating purely conventional norms.

  26. 26.

    The “barrier of complexity” that must be broken through is not only a matter of the fact that a language worth its name must consist of a great number of signals, but also of the fact that the signals come to constitute a “structure”. Some of them become incompatible with other signals in force of being bound to situations which cannot co-occur (thus a signal indicating danger comes to be incompatible with a signal indicating the absence of any danger). Some of them become inferable from other signals (thus a signal indicating danger comes to be inferable from a signal indicating an approaching tiger).

  27. 27.

    Cf. Gabora (2008).

  28. 28.

    Dawkins tries to account for this in terms of imperfections of the way we copy memes—people, according to him, often do not quite imitate one another, but do it only imperfectly. (Thus, he, for example, claims to replicate, in his book, some memes of other authors, but to replicate them imperfectly, by which he means that he does not merely repeat them, but elaborates on them and advances them.) But this sounds rather odd: at the least it seems that imperfection is a very inadequate word to characterize the difference between mere imitation and the actual upgrading which is really going on.

  29. 29.

    Rouse (2007), whose stress on normativity of social practices is congenial to the view advocated here, characterizes the complexity of the relevant mode of interaction in this way (p. 49): “One performance responds to another, for example, by correcting it, drawing inferences from it, translating it, rewarding or punishing its performer, trying to do the same thing in different circumstances, mimicking it, circumventing its effects, and so on.”

  30. 30.

    American readers should not be confused by football meaning what they call soccer.

  31. 31.

    See Maynard Smith (1998). It is also here where our behavior must become strategic in the sense of Sillari (2013).

  32. 32.

    I remember being struck, many years ago during the communist era in my country, by the realization that the whole oppressive machinery, whose presence seemed everywhere so tangible, was nothing but the product of attitudes of people—that the only thing making the almighty Regional Secretary of the Communist Party the unrestricted lord of human destinies was that this was what we all held him to be, and that if we all simultaneously stopped doing so, his majesty would collapse like a cardcastle. As Tomasello et al. (2012, p. 684) put it: “Social institutions are collaborative cultural practices with joint goals and standardized roles, with social norms governing how rewards are dispensed, how cheaters and free riders are treated, and so on. What is new about institutions is that they create new statuses for individuals playing particular roles that everyone must respect,… These new statuses exist because and only because everyone agrees in common ground that they do; because institutions are especially clearly public, no one may ignore the new statuses by pleading ignorance of them (…).”

  33. 33.

    See Odling-Smee (1996) or Day et al. (2003).

  34. 34.

    See Peregrin (2011).

  35. 35.

    It should also be noted that the claim goes beyond the frequent claim that culture constitutes a matrix that determines how we live, speak and think. The latter claim, in some circles, is so frequent that Tooby and Cosmides (1992) could classify it as “the Standard Social Science Model”. The view advocated here aims at revealing some of the mechanisms that provide for this prima facie odd picture, on which culture appears to act as a wholly mystical substance coming from nowhere and shaping the thinking of people—we try to indicate how the establishment of such a matrix can be seen as growing out of the emergent human capability of accepting rules—of instantiating the peculiar behavioral “meta-pattern” that leads to sustaining behavioral patterns across communities on the basis of beliefs, or of accepting ought-to-be's as generating ought-to-do's.

  36. 36.

    See Barrett and Campos (1987); or Hareli and Parkinson (2008).

  37. 37.

    As Frank (1988, p. 153) puts it: “People will try to avoid actions, motives, and qualities that make them feel afraid, sorry for those less privileged, anxious, bored, fatigued, or confused. The specific actions or circumstances that trigger those emotions will depend heavily on the cultural context. But the motivating emotions are always and everywhere the same.”


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Correspondence to Jaroslav Peregrin.

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Peregrin, J. Rules as the Impetus of Cultural Evolution. Topoi 33, 531–545 (2014).

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  • Rule
  • Evolution
  • Culture
  • Cooperation
  • Language