In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cultural Evolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Journals
  • Cultural Macroevolution
  • Cultural Microevolution
  • The Evolution of Cultural Evolution
  • Demography
  • Cultural Drift
  • Memetics
  • Gene-Culture Coevolution
  • Cultural Group Selection
  • Language Evolution
  • Evolutionary Economics
  • Technological Evolution
  • Evolutionary Synthesis in the Social Sciences

Anthropology Cultural Evolution
Alex Mesoudi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0038


“Cultural evolution” is the idea that human cultural change––that is, changes in socially transmitted beliefs, knowledge, customs, skills, attitudes, languages, and so on––can be described as a Darwinian evolutionary process that is similar in key respects (but not identical) to biological/genetic evolution. More specifically, just as Darwin described biological/genetic evolution as comprising three key components––variation, competition (or selection), and inheritance––cultural change also comprises these same phenomena. Yet while cultural evolution can be described as Darwinian in this sense, the details of the processes (e.g., how variation is generated, or how information is transmitted) are likely to be different in the cultural case compared to the details of biological/genetic evolution. Bearing these differences in mind, cultural evolution researchers have taken many of the same methods, tools, and concepts that biologists have developed to explain biological diversity and complexity and used them to explain similar diversity and complexity in cultural systems. These include phylogenetic methods to reconstruct “macroevolutionary” historical relations between cultural traits (e.g., languages or tools), ethnographic field studies to document and explain contemporary cross-cultural variation, laboratory experiments to determine the small-scale details of cultural “microevolution” (e.g., how cognitive biases favor certain ideas over others or whether we preferentially learn from certain people within a group), and mathematical models to explore the long-term and population-level consequences of those microevolutionary processes. Given this interdisciplinary breadth, it has been suggested that evolutionary theory may serve as a synthetic framework for unifying the social sciences, just as evolutionary theory synthesized the biological sciences during the early 20th century.

General Overviews

Mesoudi, et al. 2004 reviews evidence that cultural evolution is Darwinian by drawing an explicit analogy with Darwin’s original argument in On the Origin of Species published in 1859. Mesoudi, et al. 2006 then provides a more detailed overview of the field of cultural evolution, from phylogenetic analyses of cultural macroevolution to experimental and theoretical explorations of cultural microevolution. This overview is expanded in Mesoudi 2011. Henrich and McElreath 2003 provides a similar brief overview of cultural evolution research, as does Richerson and Boyd 2005. Laland and Brown 2011 provides an accessible overview of cultural evolution theory and research within the wider context of other evolutionary approaches to human behavior. A more detailed and empirically focused account of cultural evolution is provided by Durham 1991.

  • Durham, W. H. 1991. Coevolution: Genes, culture, and human diversity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This book is a comprehensive and detailed account of how genetic and cultural evolution can interact, such as the coevolution of lactose tolerance alleles and dairy farming, or yam cultivation and sickle cell anemia.

  • Henrich, J., and R. McElreath. 2003. The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:123–135.

    DOI: 10.1002/evan.10110

    This review of cultural evolution theory covers key issues such as when and why culture is biologically adaptive, and the cognitive mechanisms underlying cultural evolution.

  • Laland, K. N., and G. R. Brown. 2011. Sense and nonsense. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book is a highly readable overview of evolutionary approaches to human behavior, including chapters on cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution.

  • Mesoudi, A. 2011. Cultural evolution: How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This volume is an accessible overview of contemporary cultural evolution theory and research.

  • Mesoudi, A., A. Whiten, and K. N. Laland. 2004. Is human cultural evolution Darwinian? Evidence reviewed from the perspective of The Origin of Species. Evolution 58:1–11.

    This paper argues that cultural evolution can be described as Darwinian if it comprises variation, competition, and inheritance, and reviews evidence for each of these processes in human culture.

  • Mesoudi, A., A. Whiten, and K. N. Laland. 2006. Towards a unified science of cultural evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:329–383.

    This review of contemporary cultural evolution research covers the key methods used to study both cultural microevolution and macroevolution, along with brief commentaries from key researchers in the field.

  • Richerson, P. J., and R. Boyd. 2005. Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This book is an accessible overview of the authors’ work on cultural evolution, which has defined the field for more than twenty-five years.

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