Cultural evolution

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This article is about evolutionary theories of social change. For other uses, see Cultural evolution (disambiguation).

Cultural evolution is an evolutionary theory of social change.

Historically, there have been a number of different approaches to the study of cultural evolution, including dual inheritance theory, sociocultural evolution, memetics, cultural evolutionism and other variants on Cultural selection theory. These approaches differ not just in the history of their development and discipline of origin, but in how they conceptualise the process of cultural evolution and the assumptions, theories and methods they apply to its study. In recent years there has been a movement convergence of this cluster of related theories, towards seeing cultural evolution as a unified discipline in its own right.[1][2]

Population Theories of Cultural Evolution[edit]

Cultural evolution, in the Darwinian sense of variation and selective inheritance, could be said to trace back to Darwin himself.[3] He argued for both customs (1874 p239) and "inherited habits" as contributing to human evolution, grounding both in the innate capacity for acquiring language.[4][3][5]

Darwin’s ideas, along with those of such as Comte and Quetelet, influenced a number of what would now be called social scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hodgson and Knudsen[6] single out David George Ritchie and Thorstein Veblen, crediting the former with anticipating both dual inheritance theory and universal Darwinism. Contra the stereotypical image of social Darwinism that developed later in the century neither Ritchie nor Veblen were on the political right.

The early years of the twentieth century and particularly the First World War saw biological concepts and metaphors shunned by most social sciences. Even uttering the word evolution carried [Ref] [Ref] a "serious risk to one’s intellectual reputation". Darwinian ideas were also in decline following the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics but were revived, especially by Fisher, Haldane and Wright who developed the first population genetic models and as it became known the modern synthesis. Cultural evolutionary concepts, or even metaphors, revived more slowly. If there was one influential individual in the revival it was probably Donald T Campbell. In 1960[7] he drew on Wright to draw a parallel between genetic evolution and the "blind variation and selective retention" of creative ideas; work that was developed into a full theory of "socio-cultural evolution" in 1965[8] (a work that includes references to other works in the then current revival of interest in the field. Campbell (1965 26) was clear that he understood cultural evolution not as an analogy "from organic evolution per se, but rather from a general model for quasiteleological processes for which organic evolution is but one instance".

Others pursued more specific analogies notably the anthropologist F.T. (Ted) Cloak who argued in 1975[9] for the existence of learnt cultural instructions (cultural corpuscles or i-culture) resulting in material artefacts (m-culture) such as wheels.[10] The argument thereby introduced as to whether cultural evolution requires neurological instructions continues to the present day[citation needed].


Main article: Memetics

Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene proposed the concept of the "meme", which is analogous to that of the gene. A meme is an idea-replicator that which can reproduce itself, by jumping from mind to mind via the process of one human learning from another via imitation. Along with the "virus of the mind" image, the meme might be thought of as a "unit of culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.), which spreads among the individuals of a population. The variation and selection in the copying process enables Darwinian evolution among memeplexes and therefore is a candidate for a mechanism of cultural evolution. As memes are "selfish" in that they are only "interested" in their own success, then that could well be in conflict with their biological host's genetic interests. Consequently, a "meme's eye" view might account for certain evolved cultural traits, such as suicide terrorism, that are successful at spreading meme of martyrdom, but fatal to their hosts and often other people.

Evolutionary epistemology[edit]

"Evolutionary epistemology" can also refer to a theory that applies the concepts of biological evolution to the growth of human knowledge, and argues that units of knowledge themselves, particularly scientific theories, evolve according to selection. In this case, a theory—like the germ theory of disease—becomes more or less credible according to changes in the body of knowledge surrounding it.[source?]

Evolutionary Epistemology is a naturalistic approach to epistemology, which emphasizes the importance of natural selection in two primary roles. In the first role, selection is the generator and maintainer of the reliability of our senses and cognitive mechanisms, as well as the “fit” between those mechanisms and the world. In the second role, trial and error learning and the evolution of scientific theories are construed as selection processes.

One of the hallmarks of evolutionary epistemology is the notion that empirical testing alone does not justify the pragmatic value of scientific theories, but rather that social and methodological processes select those theories with the closest "fit" to a given problem. The mere fact that a theory has survived the most rigorous empirical tests available does not, in the calculus of probability, predict its ability to survive future testing. Karl Popper used Newtonian physics as an example of a body of theories so thoroughly confirmed by testing as to be considered unassailable, but which were nevertheless overturned by Einstein's bold insights into the nature of space-time. For the evolutionary epistemologist, all theories are true only provisionally, regardless of the degree of empirical testing they have surviv

Popper is considered by many to have given evolutionary epistemology its first comprehensive treatment, though Donald T. Campbell coined the phrase in 1974 (Schilpp, 1974)Schilpp, P. A., ed. The Philosophy of Karl R. Popper. LaSalle, IL. Open Court. 1974. See Campbell's essay, "Evolutionary Epistemology" on pp. 412–463.

Criticism & controversy[edit]

While historically rooted in the nature vs nurture debate, as a relatively new and growing scientific field, CE is undergoing much formative debate. Some of the prominent conversations are revolving around Universal Darwinism,[8][11] Dual Inheritance Theory,[12] and Memetics.[13][14][15]

More recently, cultural evolution has drawn conversations from multi-disciplinary sources with movement towards a unified view between the natural and social sciences. There remains some accusation of biological reductionism, as opposed to cultural naturalism, and scientific efforts are often miss-associated with Social Darwinism.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mesoudi, Alex; Whiten, Andrew; Laland, Kevin N. (2006-08-01). "Towards a unified science of cultural evolution". The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 29 (4): 329–347; discussion 347–383. doi:10.1017/S0140525X06009083. ISSN 0140-525X. PMID 17094820. 
  2. ^ Mesoudi, Alex (2011). Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226520445. 
  3. ^ a b Richerson, P.J. and Boyd. R. (2010) The Darwinian theory of human cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution. Chapter 20 in Evolution Since Darwin: The First 150 Years. M.A. Bell, D.J. Futuyma, W.F. Eanes, and J.S. Levinton, (eds.) Sinauer, pp. 561-588.
  4. ^ Darwin 1871, p. 74.
  5. ^ Price, I. (2012b) Organizational Ecologies and Declared Realities, In K. Alexander and I. Price (eds.) Managing Organizational Ecologies: Space, Management and Organization. New York, Routledge, 11-22.
  6. ^ Hodgson, G.M. and Knudsen, T. (2010). Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  7. ^ Campbell, D. T. (1960). "Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychological Review 67(6) 380-400.
  8. ^ a b Campbell, D. T. (1965). "Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution". Social Change in Developing Areas, a Reinterpretation of Evolutionary Theory.
  9. ^ Cloak, F. T. (1975). "Is a Cultural Ethology Possible?". Human Ecology 3(3) 161-182.
  10. ^ Cloak, F. T. (1968). "Cultural Darwinism: Natural selection of the spoked wheel"
  11. ^ Cziko, Gary (1995) Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (MIT Press)
  12. ^ E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York, Knopf, 1998.
  13. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1989). The Selfish Gene (2nd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286092-5.
  14. ^ Blackmore, Susan (1999) The Meme Machine (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198503652.
  15. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (2005), Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Touchstone Press, New York. pp. 352–360.


  • Bock, Kenneth E. (1956), The Acceptance of Histories: Toward a Perspective for Social Science, Berkeley: University of California Press 
  • Bock, Kenneth E. (1978), "Theories of Progress, Development, Evolution", in Bottomore, T.; Nisbet, R., A History of Sociological Analysis, New York: Basic Books, Inc., pp. 39–79 
  • Bowler, Peter J. (1984), Evolution: The History of an Idea, Berkeley: University of California Press 
  • Darwin, C. R. (1871), The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex., John Murray 
  • Degrood, David H. (1976), Philosophies of Essence: An Examination of the Category of Essence, Amsterdam: B. R. Gruner Publishing Company 
  • Dietz, Thomas; Burns, Thomas R.; Buttel, Frederick H. (1990), "Evolutionary Theory in Sociology: An Examination of Current Thinking", Sociological Forum, 4: 47–70 
  • Lennox, James G. (1987), "Kinds, Forms of Kinds and the More and the Less in Aristotle's Biology", in Gotthelf, A.; Lennox, J.G., Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, pp. 339–359 
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1936), The Great Chain of Being, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 
  • McLaughlin, Paul (1998), "Rethinking the Agrarian Question: The Limits of Essentialism and the Promise of Evolutionism", Human Ecology Review, 5 (2): 25–39 
  • McLaughlin, Paul (2012), "The Second Darwinian Revolution: Steps Toward a New Evolutionary Environmental Sociology", Nature and Culture, 7 (7): 231–258 
  • Nisbet, Robert (1969), Social Change and History, New York: Oxford University Press 
  • Richards, Richard A. (2010), The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis, New York: Cambridge University Press 
  • Rist, Gilbert (2002), The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, New York: Zed Books 
  • Sober, Elliot (1980), "Evolution, Population Thinking, and Essentialism", Philosophy of Science, 47 (3): 350–383 

Further reading[edit]

Early foundational books[edit]

  • Boyd, R.; Richerson, P.J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L.L; Feldman, M.W (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach, Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Dawkins, R (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • D. C., Dennett (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London: Penguin. 
  • Hull, D. L (1988). Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. Chicago.: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Toulmin, S. (1972). Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Waddington, C. H. (1977). Tools for Thought: How to Understand and Apply the Latest Scientific Techniques of Problem Solving. New York: Basic Books. 

Modern review books[edit]

  • Distin, K (2005). The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Distin, K (2010). Cultural evolution. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Henrich, J (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton UK: Princeton University Press. 
  • Richerson, P.J. and Christiansen, M., K (2013). Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion. The MIT Press. 

In evolutionary economics[edit]

  • Aldrich, H. E.; Hodgson, G. M; Hull, D. L.; Knudsen, T.; Mokyr, J.; Vanberg, V. (2008). "In defence of generalized Darwinism". Journal of Evolutionary Economics. 18: 577–596. 
  • Hodgson, G. M.; Knudsen, T (2004). "The firm as an interactor: firms as vehicles for habits and routines". Journal of Evolutionary Economics. 14: 281–307. 
  • Hodgson, G. M.; Knudsen, T. (2006). "Dismantling Lamarckism: why descriptions of socio-economic evolution as Lamarckian are misleading". Journal of Evolutionary Economics. 16: 343–366. 
  • Hodgson, G.M.; Knudsen, T. (2010). Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution. Chicago; London: University Of Chicago Press. 
  • Brown, G.R.; Richerson, P.J. (2013). "Applying evolutionary theory to human behaviour: past differences and current debates". Journal of Bioeconomics. 16 (2): 105–128. 
  • Bisin, A; Verdier, T. (2001). "The Economics of Cultural Transmission and the Dynamics of Preferences". Journal of Economic Theory. 97 (2): 298–319. 
  • Field, A.J. (2008). "Why multilevel selection matters". Journal of Bioeconomics. 10 (3): 203–238. 
  • Wilson, D.S.; Ostrom, E; Cox, M.E. (2013). "Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (90, supplement): S21–S32. 

In evolutionary biology[edit]

  • Gould, S. J.; Vrba, E. S. (1982). "Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form". Palaeobiology. (8): 4–15. 

High-profile empirical work[edit]

  • Murmann, P. J. (2013). "The coevolution of industries and important features of their environments.". Organization Science (24): 58–78. 
  • Chen, M. K. (2013). "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets.". American Economic Review (103(2)): 690–731 3. 

In organisational studies[edit]

  • Baldwin, J.; Anderssen, C. R.; Ridgway, K. (2013). "Hierarchical and cladistic classifications of manufacturing systems: a basis for applying generalised Darwinism?". Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Academy of Management. Istanbul. 
  • Baum, J. A. C. (1994). Singh., J. V. (Eds.), ed. "Evolutionary dynamics of organizations". New York: Oxford University Press: 1–22. 
  • Baum, J. A. C. (2007). "Cultural group selection in organization studies.". Organization Studies (28): 37–47. 
  • Campbell, D. T. (1965). "Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution". In Barringer, H. R.; Blanksten, G. I. & Mack, R. W. Social change in developing areas: A reinterpretation of evolutionary theory. Cambridge MA: Schenkman. pp. 19−48. 
  • Campbell, D. T. (1976). Assessing the impact of planned social change. Hanover NH, The Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College. 
  • Campbell, D. T. (1997). Heyes, C.; Frankel, B., eds. "From evolutionary epistemology via selection theory to a sociology of scientific validity.". Evolution and Cognition (3): 5–38. 
  • DiMaggio, P. J.; Powell, W. W. (1983). "The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields.". American Sociological. (Review, 48): 147–160. 
  • Hull, D. L. (1990). "Conceptual evolution: A response: Proceedings of the BiennialMeeting of the Philosophy of Science Association" (Vol. Two: Symposia and Invited Papers): 255–264. 
  • Hodgson, G. M. (2013). "Understanding organizational evolution: Toward a research agenda using generalized Darwinism Organization Studies" (34): 973–992. 
  • McCarthy, I. P.; Leseure, M.; Ridgway, K.; N., Fieller. (1997). "Building manufacturing cladograms.". International Journal of Technology Management (1): 269–286. 
  • McKelvey, B. (1978). "Organizational systematics: Taxonomic lessons from biology.". Management Science (24): 1428–1440. 
  • McKelvey, B. (1997). "Perspective—quasi-natural organization science.". Organization Science (8): 351–380. 
  • Moldoveanu, M. C.; Baum, J. A. C. (2002). "Contemporary debates in organizational epistemology.". In Baum, J. A. C. The Blackwell companion to organizations. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 731–751. 
  • Reydon, A. C.; Scholz, M. T. (2009). "Why organizational ecology is not a Darwinian research program.". Philosophy of the Social Sciences (39): 408–439. 
  • Reydon, A. C.; Scholz, M. T. (2014). "Darwinism and organizational ecology: a case of incompleteness or incompatibility?". Philosophy of the Social Sciences (44): 365–374. 
  • Richerson, P. J.; Collins, D.; Genet, R. M. (2006). "Why managers need an evolutionary theory of organizations.". Strategic Organization (4): 201–211. 
  • Røvik, K. A. (2011). "From Fashion to Virus: An Alternative Theory of Organizations' Handling of Management Ideas". Organization Studies (Vol. 32 No. 5): 631–653. 4. 
  • Scholz, M., T.; Reydon, A. C. (2013). "On the explanatory power of generalized Darwinism: Missing items on the research agenda.". Organization Studies (34): 993–999. 
  • Stoelhorst, J. W.; Richerson, P. J. (2013). "A naturalistic theory of economic organization.". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (90(S)): S45– S56. 
  • Sammut-Bonnici, T.; Wensley, R. (2002). "Darwinism, probability and complexity: market-based organizational transformation and change explained through the theories of evolution". International Journal of Management Reviews. 4 (3): 291–315. 
  • Terreberry, S. (1968). The evolution of organizational environments. Administrative Science Quarterly. pp. 590–613. 

Organisational memetics[edit]

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). "Society, culture, and person: a systems view of creativity". In Sternberg, R. J. The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 325–39. 
  • Price, I (1995). "Organisational memetics?: Organisational learning as a selection process". Management Learning (Vol. 26 No. 3): 299–318. 
  • Deacon, T. W. (1999). "Memes as Signs in the Dynamic Logic of Semiosis: Molecular Science meets Computation Theory". 
  • Lord, A.S.; Price, I. (2001). "Reconstruction of organisational phylogeny from memetic similarity analysis: Proof of feasibility". Journal of Memetics—Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission (Vol. 5 No. 2.). 
  • Hodgson, G. M.; Knudsen, T. (2008). "Information, complexity and generative replication.". Biology and Philosophy (43): 47–65. 
  • Langrish, J. Z. (2004). "Darwinian Design: The Memetic Evolution of Design Ideas". Design Issues: (20(4)): 4–19. 
  • Weeks, J.; Galunic, C. (2003). "A theory of the cultural evolution of the firm: The intra-organizational ecology of memes.". Organization Studies (24): 1309–1352. 

Evolutionary linguistics[edit]

  • Kirby, S. (2007). "The evolution of language". In Dunbar, R; Barret, L. Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 669–681. 
  • Feldman, C. F. (1987). "Thought from Language: the linguistic construction of cognitive representations.". In Bruner, J.; Haste, H. Making. 

External links[edit]