Human Nature

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 119–137 | Cite as

Five Misunderstandings About Cultural Evolution



Recent debates about memetics have revealed some widespread misunderstandings about Darwinian approaches to cultural evolution. Drawing from these debates, this paper disputes five common claims: (1) mental representations are rarely discrete, and therefore models that assume discrete, gene-like particles (i.e., replicators) are useless; (2) replicators are necessary for cumulative, adaptive evolution; (3) content-dependent psychological biases are the only important processes that affect the spread of cultural representations; (4) the “cultural fitness” of a mental representation can be inferred from its successful transmission; and (5) selective forces only matter if the sources of variation are random. We close by sketching the outlines of a unified evolutionary science of culture.


Dual inheritance theory Memes Cultural evolution Epidemiology of representations Cultural transmission Replicators 



We thank Natalie Henrich for her comments as well as the three insightful anonymous reviewers. Boyd and Henrich thank the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, where much of this paper was written. Boyd’s contribution was partially funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and Henrich’s contribution was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph Henrich
    • 1
  • Robert Boyd
    • 2
  • Peter J. Richerson
    • 3
  1. 1.Departments of Psychology and EconomicsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of California-Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.Department of Environmental Science and PolicyUniversity of California-DavisDavisUSA

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