Cultural Evolution

Alex Mesoudi

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:
Cultural Evolution

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  • Human Evolution
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“Cultural evolution” is the idea that human cultural change––that is, changes in socially transmitted beliefs, knowledge, customs, skills, attitudes, languages, and so on––can be described as a Darwinian evolutionary process that is similar in key respects (but not identical) to biological/genetic evolution. More specifically, just as Darwin described biological/genetic evolution as comprising three key components––variation, competition (or selection), and inheritance––cultural change also comprises these same phenomena. Yet while cultural evolution can be described as Darwinian in this sense, the details of the processes (e.g., how variation is generated, or how information is transmitted) are likely to be different in the cultural case compared to the details of biological/genetic evolution. Bearing these differences in mind, cultural evolution researchers have taken many of the same methods, tools, and concepts that biologists have developed to explain biological diversity and complexity and used them to explain similar diversity and complexity in cultural systems. These include phylogenetic methods to reconstruct “macroevolutionary” historical relations between cultural traits (e.g., languages or tools), ethnographic field studies to document and explain contemporary cross-cultural variation, laboratory experiments to determine the small-scale details of cultural “microevolution” (e.g., how cognitive biases favor certain ideas over others or whether we preferentially learn from certain people within a group), and mathematical models to explore the long-term and population-level consequences of those microevolutionary processes. Given this interdisciplinary breadth, it has been suggested that evolutionary theory may serve as a synthetic framework for unifying the social sciences, just as evolutionary theory synthesized the biological sciences during the early 20th century.

Article.  6901 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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