Biological Theory

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 244–249 | Cite as

Institutions as Mechanisms of Cultural Evolution: Prospects of the Epidemiological Approach

  • Christophe Heintz


Studying institutions as part of the research on cultural evolution prompts us to analyze one very important mechanism of cultural evolution: institutions do distribute cultural variants in the population. Also, it enables relating current research on cultural evolution to some more traditional social sciences: institutions, often seen as macro-social entities, are analyzed in terms of their constitutive micro-phenomena. This article presents Sperber’s characterization of institutions, and then gives some hints about the set of phenomena to which it applies.

Culture evolves through the advent of cognitive causal chains, which span across individuals and their environment, and which distribute mental representations and public production in the population and its habitat. Institutions are characterized by the specific causal chains that distribute representations. These chains include representations that cause the recurrence of a series of events and thus regulate the distribution of a set of representations to which they themselves belong. Saying that some cultural phenomenon is an institution is, in this theoretical framework, explaining that some representations that are part of the cultural phenomenon cause it to endure.

This technical characterization applies to what is usually understood as institutions, from marriage to money. It also opens the way for the analysis of complex phenomena in cultural evolution, such as the maintenance of cultural niches and the distribution of labor.


cultural epidemiology cultural evolution institutions regulative representations Dan Sperber 


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.KLI for Evolution and Cognition ResearchAltenbergAustria

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