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Cultural Evolution: A Review of Theory, Findings and Controversies

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Abstract

The last two decades have seen an explosion in research analysing cultural change as a Darwinian evolutionary process. Here I provide an overview of the theory of cultural evolution, including its intellectual history, major theoretical tenets and methods, key findings, and prominent criticisms and controversies. ‘Culture’ is defined as socially transmitted information. Cultural evolution is the theory that this socially transmitted information evolves in the manner laid out by Darwin in The Origin of Species, i.e. it comprises a system of variation, differential fitness and inheritance. Cultural evolution is not, however, neo-Darwinian, in that many of the details of genetic evolution may not apply, such as particulate inheritance and random mutation. Following a brief history of this idea, I review theoretical and empirical studies of cultural microevolution, which entails both selection-like processes wherein some cultural variants are more likely to be acquired and transmitted than others, plus transformative processes that alter cultural information during transmission. I also review how phylogenetic methods have been used to reconstruct cultural macroevolution, including the evolution of languages, technology and social organisation. Finally, I discuss recent controversies and debates, including the extent to which culture is proximate or ultimate, the relative role of selective and transformative processes in cultural evolution, the basis of cumulative cultural evolution, the evolution of large-scale human cooperation, and whether social learning is learned or innate. I conclude by highlighting the value of using evolutionary methods to study culture for both the social and biological sciences.

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Notes

  1. Confusingly, the terms ‘social learning’, ‘social transmission’, ‘cultural transmission’, ‘cultural inheritance’ and variants thereof are used interchangeably within the field, to denote the passing of information non-genetically from one individual to another. Here I stick to the term ‘social learning’, although this may differ from cited sources.

  2. Some of this latter school (e.g. Claidière et al. 2014) have argued that the existence of these transformative processes requires a major revision of the standard approach to cultural evolution presented in this article; I deal with this critique separately in a later section.

  3. Earlier I discussed nineteenth century progressive Spencerian theories of cultural evolution. Currie et al.’s (2010) analysis presents an interesting empirical test of a version of those claims that societies increase in complexity, although it should be noted that (1) Currie et al.’s analysis is an empirical test, whereas Tylor and Morgan offered little empirical support for their progressive schemes; (2) Currie et al. precisely defined ‘complexity’ in terms of political hierarchy, whereas Tylor and Morgan were vague and conflated social organisation, technology and many other traits into a single scheme; and (3) Currie et al. showed that cultural evolution is not inevitably progressive, in that societies often lost social hierarchical levels.

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Mesoudi, A. Cultural Evolution: A Review of Theory, Findings and Controversies. Evol Biol 43, 481–497 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11692-015-9320-0

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