Historically, there have been a number of different approaches to the study of cultural evolution, including dual inheritance theory, sociocultural evolution, memetics and cultural evolutionism. These approaches differ not just in the history of their development, but in how they conceptualise the process of cultural evolution and the assumptions, theories and methods they apply to its study. However, in recent years there has been a movement towards seeing cultural evolution as a unified discipline that synthesises knowledge from a range of biological and social sciences.
- 1 Philosophical basis
- 2 Essentialism and Aristotle’s Natural State Model
- 3 Theories of Development or "Progress"
- 4 Population Theories of Cultural Evolution
- 5 Applications
- 6 Criticism & controversy
- 7 In Fiction
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 11.1 Cultural Evolution – early foundational books
- 11.2 Cultural Evolution – modern review books
- 11.3 Cultural Evolution – in evolutionary economics
- 11.4 Cultural Evolution – in evolutionary biology
- 11.5 Cultural Evolution – high profile empirical work
- 11.6 Cultural Evolution – in organisational studies
- 11.7 (Organisational Memetics)
- 11.8 Cultural Evolution – Evolutionary linguistics
- 12 External links
Cultural evolution, broadly defined, means simply social change. Virtually all social scientific theories with an historical dimension fit this inclusive definition. However, social scientists traditionally have equated "evolution" with development or progress. Theories of the latter type are grounded in essentialism and are analogous to pre-Darwinian theories of biological progress—e.g., Lamarck—derived from temporalizing Plato’s Chain of Being. Developmental theories compare social change to the growth of an organism. Social institutions, societies or even humanity as a whole are posited to have a natural tendency to advance along a single, privileged developmental pathway. The diversity and complexity of actual histories is conceptualized as the joint product of these internally generated tendencies and secondary obstacles or interfering forces that impede or deflect those tendencies. The idea of social development or progress originated with Aristotle’s Politics, was assimilated into Christianity by St. Augustine, re-secularized by Fontenelle and other philosophes of the Enlightenment, elaborated by Spencer, Tylor, Morgan, Durkheim and Marx in the 19th-century and persists today under the guise of functionalism, neo-evolutionism, and assorted theories of development and modernization. So-called Social Darwinian theories also fall into this category.
In recent decades, a series of social scientific perspectives have emerged which radically redefine the meaning of cultural evolution, bringing it in line with the consensus understanding of evolution in post-Darwinian biology. These contemporary perspectives include dual inheritance theory, mimetics, evolutionary linguistics, evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary economics, evolutionary archeology, evolutionary psychology, distributive models of culture, organizational ecology, and the study of complex adaptive systems. Some of these perspectives attempt to directly extend theories of biological evolution; others treat biological and cultural evolution as merely analogous processes. However, in contrast to older, linear theories of development, all of these perspectives reject essentialism in favor of a populational approach to theory construction. That is, they assume that history is inherently multilinear and see social change as the product of a continuous process of variation, selection and retention of socially transmitted information (culture) in human and animal populations. The ongoing transition from developmental to populational perspectives on cultural evolution, including the shift in underlying philosophic assumptions, suggests that the social sciences are in the midst of a second Darwinian revolution.
For the sake of clarity, hereafter the term cultural evolution will be applied exclusively to populational perspectives on social change, while development or progress will be used to identify older, linear theories of change.
Essentialism and Aristotle’s Natural State Model
Essentialism denotes a family of related doctrines, including Plato’s theory of forms or ideas and Aristotle’s theory of substance. Virtually all of the modern sciences were initially constructed on an essentialist foundation. Essentialists attempt to explain the physical, biological and social worlds as the result of invariant processes operating beneath the "flux" of appearances. For Plato, the source of this hidden order was to be found not in the everyday world of appearances, but in the timeless, transcendent realm of ideas or essences. His idealist version of essentialism established a "tradition of refusing to grant space-time events any ultimate ontological status." In contrast, Aristotle insisted that essences are inseparable from the objects that embody them. His alternative, materialist interpretation of essentialism ultimately proved more conducive to scientific and historical explanation.
Aristotle’s essentialism encompasses two main approaches to defining categories and an associated methodology for theorizing dynamics—the Natural State Model (NSM). In his works on logic, Aristotle elaborated what Richards calls property essentialism which defines categories in terms of unique sets of intrinsic common properties. However, in his biology, Aristotle explicitly rejected this approach, in favor of a functional-developmental essentialism. The latter teleological approach conceptualizes essential traits not like the intrinsic properties which differentiate chemical elements, but rather as a collection of functional traits and extrinsic relationships that allow members of a species "to survive and flourish" in a specific environment. 
Both of these approaches to categorization can be combined with Aristotle’s NSM to construct theories of physical, biological or social dynamics. Theorists applying the NSM begin by postulating or empirically identifying the natural state or path of change characteristic of the members of a category defined using either intrinsic properties or functional relationships. For essentialists, natural tendencies provide the principal cause and explanation of phenomena. Moreover, natural tendencies do not describe inevitable outcomes, merely the outcomes realized in the absence of other influences. Indeed, natural tendencies are invariably impeded or deflected by secondary obstacles or interfering forces. For Aristotle, "Variability within nature is...to be accounted for as a deviation from what is natural". Essentialists, thus, conceptualize diversity within categories as an effect, not a cause. Moreover, the NSM represents a frame-invariant approach to theory construction. Its goal is to analytically strip away the effects of external forces in order to uncover context-independent patterns.
Aristotle’s NSM provided the foundation for Newtonian mechanics in physics, the periodic table in chemistry, pre-Darwinian theories of biological progress as well as the law of errors (normal curve) in statistics. In the social science, it provided the basis for constructing theories of human nature and theories of social development or progress.
Theories of Development or "Progress"
Aristotle’s analysis of the state is arguably the first systematic theory of social development or progress, though it has deeper roots in both Greek philosophy—e.g., Heraclitus—and mythology—e.g., the myth of Demeter. In his Politics, Aristotle employed the Greek concept of physis—i.e., nature or growth—to argue that, like an acorn maturing into an oak tree, the state has an essence which causes it to develop along a natural, context-independent path defined by a sequential series of stages. The origin or first stage of the state lies in the family, the smallest form of self-sustaining social organization. The reproduction of families leads naturally to a second stage, the formation of villages. Villages, in turn, mature into states. Completing his organic metaphor, Aristotle argued that states eventually grow old and die and, according to his theory of cycles, the process begins again. Aristotle’s theory of the state represents an application of his NSM. His hypothesized natural path of change is ideal both in the moral sense of what is good for the state and its citizens (its purpose or final cause) and also in the theoretical sense of the path that is realized in the absence of obstacles and interfering forces. The latter give rise to the complexities of actual historical states. The goal of Aristotelian science is analytically strip away such accidents to discover underlying frame-invariant ideals. Aristotle’s theory of the state as a product of a natural, intrinsically generated process of change—exhibiting directionality, continuity, cumulativeness and irreversibility—provided the model for all subsequent theories of development or progress.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) or Saint Augustine incorporated Aristotle’s concept of development into Christianity. However, in order to reconcile the inherent tensions between Aristotle’s philosophical and Christianity’s providentialist interpretations of history, Augustine was forced to reinterpret the original doctrine in several ways. First, Aristotle saw social progress as the result of spontaneous, internal natural tendencies—like the growth of an oak tree. However, in The City of God, Augustine put forward a revised theological developmentalism which posited God as the motive force behind historical advancement. His will might be temporarily impeded or deflected by secondary obstacles and interfering forces, but God’s plan ultimately could not be thwarted. Thus, Augustine bequeathed to subsequent theories of progress a suggestion of inevitability that was absent from Aristotle’s original model. Indeed, the latter is perfectly compatible with the idea of permanent obstacles. Second, Aristotle had insisted "that there could be no science of the accidental." However, from Augustine’s theological perspective even the chance events of human history—i.e., those not resulting from natural tendencies—could be subject to explanation in terms of divine interventions revealed through revelation. Third, Augustine expanded the idea of progress to encompass all of mankind, but he still used the stages of specific nations to illustrate the process. Finally, given the Christian view of history as sacred and unique, Augustine was obliged to repudiate the Greek idea of recurrent cycles. He retained Aristotle’s organismic metaphor of growth and decay, but this natural cycle was realized only once. Nevertheless, this seemingly small shift subsequently "opened the way to a linear view of history." Augustine’s theory of development provided the accepted account of history until the idea of progress was secularized during the Enlightenment.
Population Theories of Cultural Evolution
Cultural evolution, in the Darwinian sense of variation and selective inheritance, could be said to trace back to Darwin himself. He argued for both customs (1874 p239) and "inherited habits" as contributing to human evolution, grounding both in the innate capacity for acquiring language.
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 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 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 (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 for the existence of learnt cultural instructions (cultural corpuscles or i-culture) resulting in material artefacts (m-culture) such as wheels. The argument thereby introduced as to whether cultural evolution requires neurological instructions continues to the present day.
Dual inheritance theory
Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene proposed the meme, analogous to a gene, which 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 "interested" in their own success, which may be in conflict with their biological host. Consequently, taking a "meme's eye" view accounts for certain evolved cultural traits, such as suicide terrorism, that are successful at spreading a meme, but fatal to their hosts and often other people.
This page offers a timeline for memetics and cultural evolution - for the period leading up to 2012. There's an emphasis on recent history. http://memetics.timtyler.org/timeline/
Complex adaptive systems
Distributive models of culture
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Criticism & controversy
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, Dual Inheritance Theory, and Memetics.
Casey Hattrey (2015) Persister: Space Funding Crisis I
- Cultural Evolutionism
- Sociocultural Evolution
- Dual Inheritance Theory
- Gene-culture coevolution
- Cultural Group Selection
- Cultural Selection Theory
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- Blackmore, Susan (1999) The Meme Machine (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198503652.
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- Nisbet, Robert (1969), Social Change and History, New York: Oxford University Press
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- Sober, Elliot (1980), "Evolution, Population Thinking, and Essentialism", Philosophy of Science, 47 (3): 350–383
Cultural Evolution – early foundational books
- 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.
Cultural Evolution – modern review books
- 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.
Cultural Evolution – in evolutionary economics
- 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, suppliment): S21–S32.
Cultural Evolution – in evolutionary biology
- Gould, S. J.; Vrba, E. S. (1982). "Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form". Palaeobiology. (8): 4–15.
Cultural Evolution – high profile empirical work
- 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.
Cultural Evolution – in organisational studies
- 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.
- 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.
Cultural Evolution – Evolutionary linguistics
- 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.