Approaches to Explaining the Evolution of Human Culture

 Created: 25 Jul 2012  Modified: 23 Jul 2020   BibTeX Entry   RIS Citation  Print

Five Classical Approaches to the Evolution of Culture

Human sociobiology

  • Response to the naive group-selectionism in ethology. Cooperation in social behavior the central paradox – spawned generations of research on altruism and cooperation.
  • Models of reciprocal altruism, parent-offspring conflict, kin selection, and the methods of evolutionary game theory.
  • Hugely controversial applied to humans, although the theoretical content of sociobiology has been essentially baked into all non-social science analysis of the evolution of behavior

Human behavioral ecology

  • Attempt to gather data on whether human behavior was adaptive
  • To what extent are behavioral differences responses to particular environments?
  • Adaptive behavior is functional behavior that increments reproductive success
  • This is different than an adaptation, which is a character which was shaped by selection for its effectiveness in a particular role.

Evolutionary psychology

  • EP tends to see human cognition and cultural processing capabilities as past adaptations to the environment in which humanity evolved.
  • Environment of evolutionary adaptedness: - stable psychological mechanisms evolved in response to stable features of the ancestral environment.
  • Gradualism - minds are build from co-adapted gene complexes that are unable to respond quickly to selection. Suggests that humans experience “adaptive lag”
  • Massive modularity - the mind consists of domain-specific, modular programmes, with much less emphasis (or denial of) a general-purpose cognitive module or structure.
  • Universal human nature - the evolved modules are responsible for producing a species-specific human nature. Different outcomes emerge from this universal human nature through triggering by social and environmental conditions, leading to universal behavioral outcomes and locally specified adaptive solutions.
  • Current behavior is produced by these adaptations, but may not be currently adaptive in the HBE sense.
  • Critiques of the EEA focus on the fact that selection has operated continuously and changed human genomes over the last several thousand years in significant ways. There is no reason to assume that cognition is a frozen remnant of adaptation to an EEA.
  • However, the notion that there are psychological modules or tendencies, or learning biases, is probably a useful one if divorced from the idea of past adaptations. These psych tendencies and biases appear in “dual inheritance” theory as well, given the psych background of the B&R clade.


  • Memetics itself is a research program which considers cultural information (memes) to be a distinct and parallel set of replicators. This research program applies formal Darwinism to cultural information in the absence of interaction with genetics or selective forces caused by fecundity or death of biological organisms.
  • Even more strongly, memetics is an attempt to use “replicator” as indicative not of a class of processes, but to claim that culture is made up of particulate information which is replicated in a high-fidelity manner. Memes are phenomenological in some fashion in this view.
  • It originated by taking Dawkins’s notion of the “gene’s eye view” (genetic selectionism) seriously as a parallel for cultural information.
  • This leads to “culture as virus” theories, where humans are more a substrate that memes inhabit than an integrated phenotypic system.
  • Principal issue within “classical memetics” is a lack of a serious, cumulative empirical body of knowledge, and not much methodological development. Much of the early memetics literature is devoted to “just-so” stories and reframing cultural phenomena in presumptively memetic terms.
  • Major criticism of memetics: evolution requires descent with modification (i.e., heritability), not replication in any strict sense.

Gene-Culture Coevolution / Dual-Inheritance Theory

  • Gene-culture coevolution describes theories in which both systems of inheritance are modeled in parallel, in order to capture phenomena which span both systems.
  • Canonical example: lactose tolerance genetically followed the cultural practice of dairy farming.
  • Much of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and some of Boyd and Richerson’s, work falls into this category. But some aspects of “dual inheritance theory” (i.e., transmission biases) also are useful in “pure” CT theory.
  • Archy CT folks who are not “UW Tradition” are usually DI theorists, but given the nature of our data and phenomena, we usually employ only the pure cultural side of the DI models.

Approaches as Seen Within Archaeology


  • Selectionist archaeology
  • Compiled by Lumsden and Wilson in 1981, refs in Laland and Brown 2006
  • Idea
  • Mnemotype
  • Idene
  • Sociogene
  • Instruction
  • Cultural type
  • Meme
  • Concept
  • Culturgen
  • Dual-inheritance theory
  • HBE
  • But Collard himself is mainly interested in applying phylogenetic methods and tracing macroevolutionary pattern, likely considering himself part of the dual-inheritance school.

Opposition to Darwinian Views of Culture

  • Aunger (2000) - disputes on three levels:
  • Whether culture is properly seen as composed of independently transmitted information units
  • Whether these so-called memes have the necessary qualifications to serve as replicators
  • Whether a Darwinian or selectionist approach such as memetics is the most feasible or desirable form for a science of culture to take.

Sober’s Three Selection Models

  • Type 1: heritability through genes, fitness through biological reproduction
  • Type 2: heritability through learning, fitness through biological reproduction
  • Type 3: heritability through learning, fitness through cultural replication
  • “Models of transmission systems describe the quantitative consequences of systems of cultural influence.” …. Evolutionary theory is much less unified when we consider what it has to say about the sources of fitness differences….evolutionary theory achieves its greatest generality when it ignores sources and focuses on consequences.

Summing Up

Aunger (2000) neatly describes what I think is the core problem in the debates over evolutionary explanations for culture (which seem largely over in archaeology now that we’re in a “big tent” phase of theory coexistence).

He describes a general debate in the social sciences: “whether culture can be treated strictly as socially transmitted information in the first place.”

  • Culture need not be solely composed of “socially transmitted information” for an evolutionary approach to be useful.
  • Evolutionary theory is not, strictly speaking, a theory about “sources” but about “consequences” – it is a theory or theories which describe the macro consequences of constructing micro theories that combine individual variation, processes operative locally within populations, and heritability.
  • Even in genetic inheritance, not all of the relevant context for determining consequences is “genetically transmitted” – some is epigenetic, some is environmental, and some is contextual given population structure. And the theories of population genetics and natural selection themselves are silent about how these other information structures arise and operate – other bodies of theory are necessary to describe that.
  • Even those aspects of culture which are “socially transmitted” and thus explicable using a flow/diffusion/heritability framework combined with population thinking, need not be strictly or solely “particulate” or discrete.
  • This follows from the previous observation, but makes the point that heritability is a matter of information-theoretic correlation derived from direct causation, rather than probabilistic convergence. Observations about the “particulate” nature of genetic inheritance are really separate from this given the “blending vs particulate” argument in the early days of Mendelism. Many phenotypic characters which are genetically coded are not particulate, and there’s some point at which a polygenic character with epigenetic modification ceases to be meaningfully “particulate” in the simple way we normally mean that. So it’s not clear to me that the subset of social information which is actually copied or learned (as opposed to the other aspects of a cultural phenomenon which need not be copied to be part of cultural inheritance), need to be “particulate” at all.
  • The upshot to me is that a lot of the memetics literature, and critics of an evolutionary perspective in general, spent a good deal of time on these issues while using overly simplified genetic analogies to make their points.
  • And much of this literature completely ignores ideational/phenomenological distinctions, and the roles of different theories and models in answering specific questions. Asking whether “Evolutionary models explain culture” is nonsensical. They can explain particular questions about culture.
  • Other theories and models are needed in other cases – keeping in mind that if we have a theory for the source or structure of a phenomenon, if that theory is consistent with population thinking, it might become part of an evolutionary explanation down the road. That’s really the sense in which RCD, Lipo, and others are able make totalizing statements about evolutionary theory being the right theoretical basis for the social sciences, or anthropology, as a whole, while avoiding the reductionism they’re often painted with. Saying that archaeology ought to be evolutionary is not a statement that archaeologists SHOULD ONLY study population genetic models, or explain phenomena as adaptations shaped by natural selection.
  • It is a statement that a naturalistic, scientific study of human behavior, or artifact production, etc., is naturally a mix of source and consequence theories once one accepts population thinking and variation as causal. The consequence theories start with population genetics-like diffusionist models and selection models, but really describe what happens when you put together a combination of processes. The source theories might be quite functionalist and space-like indeed, and encompass a lot of traditional types of anthropological theory – the big difference being that most source theories in anthropology are essentialist and need revision for population thinking….