Models of Cultural Evolution

  • Elliott Sober
Part of the Australasian Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 11)


At least since the time of Darwin, there has been a tradition of borrowing between evolutionary theory and the social sciences. Darwin himself owed a debt to the Scottish economists who showed him how order can be produced without conscious design. Adam Smith thought that socially beneficial characteristics can emerge in a society as if by an “invisible hand;” though each individual acts only in his or her narrow self-interest, the result, Smith thought, would be a society of order, harmony, and prosperity. The kind of theory Darwin aimed at — in which fitness improves in a population without any conscious guidance — found a suggestive precedent in the social sciences.


Natural Selection Genetic Mode Cultural Evolution Demographic Transition Cultural Transmission 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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    “Having babies” should be interpreted broadly, so as to include “having grandbabies”, “having greatgrandbabies”, etc. In some selection models (e.g., Fisher’s sex ratio argument), fitness differences require that one consider expected numbers of descendants beyond the first generation.Google Scholar
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    See R. Colwell and M. King (1983), “Disentangling Genetic and Cultural Influences on Human Behaviour: Problems and Prospects,” in D. Rajecki (ed.), Comparing Behavior: Studying Man Studying Animals, Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.Google Scholar
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    David Hull’s Science as a Process (University of Chicago Press, 1988) develops some interesting ideas about how evolutionary ideas can be used to explain scientific change.Google Scholar
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    I do not claim that this taxonomy is exhaustive. For example, the spread of an infectious disease may be thought of as a selection process, in which the two states of an individual (“infected” and “not infected”) differ in how catching they are. Clearly, this is not a type I process. Arguably, the concept of learning does not permit this process to be placed in type II. Perhaps the taxonomy would be exhaustive, if “learning” were replaced by “phenotypic resemblance not mediated by genetic resemblance.”Google Scholar
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    The description of type III models, in which fitness is measured by “having students,” is due to Peter Richerson.Google Scholar
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    The difference between directed and undirected variation is conceptually different from the difference between biased and unbiased transmission. The former concerns the probability that a mutation will arise; the latter has to do with whether it will be passed along. Directed variation (mutation) can be described as follows. Let u be the probability of mutating from A to a and v be the probability of mutating from a to A. Mutation is directed if (i) u>v and (ii) u>v because w(a) > w(A), where w(X) is the fitness of X.Google Scholar
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    So the question about the usefulness of these models of cultural evolution to the day-to-day research of social scientists comes to this: Are social scientists good at intuitive population thinking? If they are, then their explanations will not be undermined by precise models of cultural evolution. If they are not, then social scientists should correct their explanations (and the intuitions on which they rely) by studying these models.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elliott Sober
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of WisconsinUSA

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