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An overview of the phenomenon of culture in the human species

What is Cultural Evolution? Theories of cultural evolution need to be distinguished from theories within evolutionary psychology, even though both may involve an application of evolutionary ideas to the explanation of cultural phenomena. The evolutionary psychologist e. Tooby and Cosmides 1992 tends to assume that the most important inheritance mechanism in all species—our own included—is genetic inheritance. Evolutionary psychology regards the human mind as evolving through a conventional process of natural selection acting on genetically inherited variation.

Such a hypothesis can also help to explain novel cultural trends: So evolutionary psychology is hardly silent about culture and cultural change. Even so, cultural evolutionary theorists tend to place far more stress on the role of non-genetic inheritance, and specifically of cultural inheritance mediated via learning, as a factor playing a positive, creative role in adapting species to their social and biological environments. Darwin believed, as do biologists today, that natural selection can explain the origin of many complex adaptive traits.

This explanatory schema is largely neutral regarding what mechanism accounts for parent-offspring resemblance. For example, offspring might learn skills from their parents, and thereby come to resemble them behaviourally.

From the perspective of natural selection explanations, it does not matter why offspring resemble parents, only that they do resemble them. As we have seen, cultural processes such as learning might, in principle, underpin this form of inheritance. But we do not learn only from our parents—we also learn from peers, authority-figures and so forth. This is known as oblique transmission.

Once we acknowledge the possibility that learning can underpin natural selection, we also acknowledge that a theory of evolution—a theory which seeks to explain change, including adaptive change in a population—may also need to be further expanded to encompass oblique transmission. The admittance of oblique transmission into evolutionary theory necessitates far more radical revisions to traditional Darwinian models of evolution.

This is because oblique transmission opens up the possibility that some traits may spread through a population in spite of the fact that they reduce the fitness of the individuals who bear them.

Cultural Evolution

While large amounts of work in cultural evolution have focused on the human species, there is also a growing body of work assessing the implications of learning for adaptation and speciation in many other species including chimpanzees Whiten et al 1999whales Rendell and Whitehead 2001fish and birds among many others Laland and Hoppitt 2003. Moreover, this work on non-human species also helps to refine and to answer a series of questions about why humans, compared with other species, seem so conspicuously good at building, maintaining and refining collective storehouses of adaptive cultural capital Henrich 2015, Laland 2016.

Natural Selection and Cultural Inheritance In a classic early work of cultural evolution, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981 ask among other things how we can explain declining birth rates among Italian women in the nineteenth century. These women went from having around five children on average to having only two. It would be extremely implausible to argue that this occurred as result of natural selection Sober 1991, 482.

It would be implausible, for example, to argue that the fitness of women with smaller families was greater than the fitness of women with larger families. But surely Italian women could have raised more than two children to be healthy adults.

Forms of oblique transmission are required to explain this transition, because if cultural transmission was always vertical, then the trait of having greater numbers of offspring would be maintained in the population by natural selection, albeit selection acting via cultural inheritance. One might react an overview of the phenomenon of culture in the human species this with confusion: Of course we acquire traits from others by learning.

And of course those others from whom we learn can include peers as well as parents. In part, we can respond to this bewilderment by pointing to the virtues of clarifying the conditions required for cultural inheritance to overcome natural selection. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman argue that if women simply acquired whichever preference for family size was the most widely adopted in their local cultural environment, then cultural inheritance would not have enough of an effect to overcome natural selection.

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Women must be disposed to acquire the preference for small family size even when it is present in only a small proportion of their cultural circle, if small family size is to replace large family size in the population as a whole. This is an illuminating claim, and it takes a quantitative model to show it. This question of what benefit is to be had from setting these sorts of claims in a quantitative theory will be raised in more detail later in this article.

For the moment, note that one may also ask why it should be the case that we are able to learn from non-parents at all, given the adaptive costs of such a disposition. If the tendency of Italian women to learn from their peers has led them to reduce their fitness by reducing their family size, why did natural selection allow such learning dispositions to become established in the first place?

Boyd and Richerson, two other pioneers in cultural evolutionary theory, claim that the overall adaptive benefits of learning from non-parents in fact outweigh the overall adaptive costs Richerson and Boyd 2005, Ch. They give several reasons for this view. Suppose an inventive or lucky individual is able to discover some behaviour, or technique, which augments fitness.

If other individuals in the population can copy that behaviour, then their fitness will probably be augmented, too. It will often be difficult for individuals to ascertain which behaviours in fact augment fitness, hence which behaviours should be copied. The problem, then, is how to tune a learning mechanism so that beneficial behaviours are copied, while non-beneficial behaviours are not. Boyd and Richerson suggest that prestige bias can overcome this problem: Moreover, evidence has been accumulating for the reality of prestige bias.

In other words, they claim that individuals are accorded a broad form of prestige, which affects their likelihood of serving as a cultural model. The value of prestige bias relies on the supposition that those individuals who are able to get themselves into prestigious positions have a better than average tendency to make use of fitness-enhancing techniques. This heuristic will not be failsafe: But the question which settles the plausibility of natural selection explaining prestige bias is not whether prestige bias will sometimes lead to the copying of maladaptive techniques; the question, rather, is whether individuals who learn from the prestigious will tend to be fitter on average than individuals who either do not learn at all, or who an overview of the phenomenon of culture in the human species equally likely to learn from any member of the population, regardless of their social status.

Richerson and Boyd 2005, 120—22 suggest that other learning heuristics may be adaptive. One of these they call conformist bias.

This may mean acquiring behaviours appropriate to a new biological environment: But it can also lead to the generation of socially appropriate behaviours, which will obviate ostracism or attack. Moreover, they argue that children tend to seek out cultural conformists as individuals whom they should trust.

These findings offer some support the existence of a form of conformist bias, although Lewens 2015 has suggested that both the theoretical and empirical cases for conformist bias may not be as strong as first meets the eye. These examples show the nature of the interaction between cultural evolutionary thinking and more traditional natural selection thinking. Natural selection acting on genetic variation can establish dispositions to learn from non-kin in spite of the fact that under some circumstances these dispositions lead to the proliferation of maladaptive traits.

It is worth noting that this aspect of much cultural evolutionary thinking retains a strong methodological affinity with the evolutionary psychological approach it is sometimes contrasted with Lewens 2015.

Learning dispositions themselves are often understood by cultural evolutionists as genetically inherited adaptations, produced in response to adaptive problems faced by our earlier ancestors. Some recent critics of cultural evolutionary thinking e. Heyes 2012, and especially Heyes 2018 consequently argue that it is not cultural enough, for it tends to downplay the possibility that learning dispositions themselves might be inherited through forms of learning.

All agree, though, that once these learning dispositions are in place, we should not assume that every trait in a population must be explained by reference to the biological fitness benefit it has conferred in the past.

Evolutionary adaptationists tend to ask, of any given trait, what effect might have led natural selection to favour that trait.

  • Eating my cake simply triggered the use of a recipe that was already in your repertoire;
  • As indicated earlier, Sperber argues that the simple notion of copying is only rarely appropriate to explain why broadly similar cultural items propagate in a stable manner through a population;
  • Their view is that the resources of more mainstream evolutionary theory are not up to this explanatory task;
  • Darwin 1877, 113 Darwin asserts that this is no mere analogy;
  • This is because one may be sceptical of the existence of a theory that is both general enough to cover all forms of cultural change, and informative enough to be enlightening;
  • We will look at each line of defence in turn.

Even if an adaptationist stance of this sort is justifiable for learning mechanisms and cultural evolutionists typically are adaptationists in this respect this does not mean that an adaptationist stance is justifiable for learned traits. Historical Pedigree The notion that culture itself evolves, and that Darwinian insights can be applied to understanding cultural change, is by no means new.

A very early example of cultural evolutionary thinking comes from William James: A remarkable parallel, which to my mind has never been noticed, obtains between the facts of social evolution and the mental growth of the race, on the one hand, and of zoological evolution, as expounded by Mr Darwin, on the other.

The great man needs to be made, and society does this. Hence ultimately it is society itself that explains social change.

  1. Development also needs to make a wide range of variation available.
  2. Suppose an inventive or lucky individual is able to discover some behaviour, or technique, which augments fitness.
  3. If other individuals in the population can copy that behaviour, then their fitness will probably be augmented, too.
  4. It is impossible to believe in the theory of relativity without understanding it, and one cannot understand it without holding many additional beliefs relating to physics.
  5. The environment needs to cooperate.

Variations are produced by unknown causes, and the environment selects among them. The same is true of great men: Great men, like spontaneous variations, are essential and inexplicable elements of the evolutionary process. This social evolution is a resultant of the interaction of two wholly distinct factors: Both factors are essential to change. One of the reasons for this is that cultural evolutionary theories often define themselves in opposition to those which claim that genetic inheritance is the only significant inheritance mechanism.

Clearly one cannot cast Darwin as a cultural evolutionist in this manner, for he had no notion of genetic inheritance to oppose. Having said this, Darwin did believe that what was learned in one generation could be inherited in later generations. These were understood to be particles produced throughout the body, of a character specific to the body part that produces them.

Darwin believed that gemmules then travelled to the gonads, where they were transmitted to offspring in the sex cells. Darwin claimed that gemmules were produced throughout the body in order to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics. So in one sense Darwin is in alignment with modern cultural evolutionists—he believed that characteristics learned during the life of a parent could be transmitted to offspring. But in another sense Darwin is opposed to modern cultural evolutionists, for rather than distinguishing between different interacting inheritance systems e.

There are other respects in which one might choose to regard Darwin as a proto-cultural evolutionist. Darwin sometimes integrates discussion of technological evolution into his broader discussions of natural selection.

In the Descent of Man, Darwin pauses to discuss technical innovation, arguing that successful innovations will usually be imitated, thereby increasing the success of a group as a whole, increasing the size of that group, and consequently increasing the chances of inventive members being born into it Darwin 1877. Darwin 1877, 154 Finally, Darwin endorses the view, widely favoured these days, that natural selection need not act on organisms.

Rather, natural selection is substrate-neutral. A natural selection process can occur whenever certain abstract conditions—these days often expressed as differential reproduction with inheritance—are met. Darwin explicitly endorses the view that natural selection can act on entities other than organisms in the context of language change, a cultural phenomenon.

This position is briefly explored in the Origin of Species, and further expanded in the Descent of Man. A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent value.

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Darwin 1877, 113 Darwin asserts that this is no mere analogy: Cultural evolutionary theory in general requires only a systematic effort to model the effects of cultural inheritance, and one might decide that thinking in terms of natural selection acting on units of culture is not the best way of doing this.

We will investigate these issues in more detail later in this article. We have already mentioned Herbert Spencer, and Spencer is sometimes regarded as a key early advocate of efforts to apply evolutionary thinking to human culture e.

Jablonka and Lamb 2005, 21—22. Spencer reasoned that if the experiences of past generations were imprinted on human minds, then it would be true both that some forms of knowledge in current generations were a priori, and also that this knowledge had its origins in experience, albeit the experience of our ancestors. Darwin himself had made a brief note along similar lines in his M notebook: There is an important difference between Darwin and Lorenz, which these superficial similarities might hide.