Cultural selection theory

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Cultural selection theory is the study of cultural change modelled on theories of evolutionary biology.[1] Cultural selection theory has so far never been a separate discipline.[2] However it has been proposed[3] that human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties, and "the structure of a science of cultural evolution should share fundamental features with the structure of the science of biological evolution".[3] In addition to Darwin's work the term historically covers a diverse range of theories[2] from both the sciences and the humanities including those of Lamark, politics and economics e.g. Bagehot, anthropology e.g. Edward B. Tylor, literature e.g. Ferdinand Brunetière, evolutionary ethics e.g. Leslie Stephen, sociology e.g. Albert Keller, anthropology e.g. Bronislaw Malinowski, Biosciences e.g. Alex Mesoudi,[3] geography e.g. Richard Ormrod,[4] sociobiology and biodiversity e.g. E.O. Wilson, computer programming e.g. Richard Brodie,[5] and other fields e.g. Neoevolutionism, and Evolutionary archaeology.[6]


Crozier suggests that Cultural Selection emerges from three bases: Social contagion theory, Evolutionary epistemology, and Memetics.[1]

This theory is an extension of memetics. In memetics, memes, much like biology's genes, are informational units passed through generations of culture. However, unlike memetics, cultural selection theory moves past these isolated "memes" to encompass selection processes, including continuous and quantitative parameters. Two other approaches to cultural selection theory[1] are social contagion and evolutionary epistemology. Social contagion theory’s epidemiological approach construes social entities as analogous to parasites that are transmitted virally through a population of biological organisms. Evolutionary epistemology's focus lies in causally connecting evolutionary biology and rationality by generating explanations for why traits for rational behaviour or thought patterns would have been selected for in a species’ evolutionary history. Memetics models cultural change after population genetics, taking cultural units to be analogous to genes.[1]

A good example of this theory is found by looking to the reason large businesses tend to grow larger. The answer includes the benefits of mass production and distribution, international advertising, and more funds for product development. These self-amplifying effects, known as the economies of scale, give rise to selection effects which have a quantitative nature, unlike the qualitative effects described by the theory of memetics.

On the whole, cultural selection theory embraces the inherent complexity of cultural change and vouches for a systemic, rather than deconstructionist, approach to analyzing the way a society's norms and values change.


The cultural selection theory faces many objections due to the lack of evidence to support the adaptation of natural selection in the structural mechanisms of cultural systems. Major objections against the cultural selection theory stem from Lamarckianism, genotype-phenotype distinction, common hereditary architecture, biological analogue for cultural units, and environmental interactions.[1] The Biological Analogue for Cultural Units breaks down into 3 subunits. The first is regarding strict analogues. This means that a biological unit (traits etc.) should be related to a cultural unit. This is a way for the old biological model and the modern cultural model to correlate and solidify the point. The second is regarding trait analogues. This means that some analogues are viewed the wrong way. Sometimes, one analogue is mistaken for another and often, the line between the two analogues is unclear and the distinction isn't as evident. The third is regarding virus analogue. This clarifies the point that the ability of the virus is different from the organism and the ability of both the virus and organisms should be looked at independently.[1]

Some have argued that in order for the cultural selection theory to stand strong against objections, conclusive and explicit case studies are required. There needs to be empirical support to clarify the interaction between cultural systems and their environments. Crozier conducted a study on the acoustic adaptation of bird songs. This research study provided empirical evidence to support and strengthen the cultural selection theory.[7]

Like Darwin's natural selection theory, cultural selection theory has three phases too; variation, reproduction and selection. Variation gives rise to a subject, reproduction is responsible for the spread and selection is based on the factors that control the spread.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f [1] Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory, Crozier, G. K. D, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 59 (3), Sept 2008, DOI: 10.1093/bjps/axn018
  2. ^ a b [2] The history of cultural selection theory, Cultural selection, Agner Fog, 1999
  3. ^ a b c Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution, Mesoudi A. Whiten A. Laland K. N., Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2006), 29, 329-383, Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Adaptation and Cultural Diffusion. Ormrod, Richard K. Journal of Geography, v91 n6 p258-62 Nov-Dec 1992
  5. ^ Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, Hay House, 2004. ISBN 978-1-4019-2468-3
  6. ^ [3] Evolutionary Archaeology, Semiotics Encyclopedia Online, E.J. Pratt Library - Victoria University
  7. ^ Crozier, G.K.D., 2010. A formal investigation of cultural selection theory: acoustic adaptation in bird song. Biology and Philosophy 25, 781–801.