Evolutionary Biology Cultural Evolution
Alex Mesoudi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0090


Cultural evolution is the idea that cultural change—that is, changes in beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, norms, and other socially transmitted information—constitutes an evolutionary process that shares key similarities with (but also differs in important ways from) genetic evolution. Consequently, evolutionary concepts, tools, and methods employed by biologists to understand genetic evolution can be borrowed and adapted to understand cultural change. For species that possess long-lasting cultural inheritance (certainly humans, but probably also other great apes and several cetacean species), behavior is shaped by both genetic and cultural evolution, which interact in a manner known as gene-culture coevolution. Understanding one without the other will lead to incomplete explanations. Cultural microevolution concerns the small-scale processes within societies by which cultural variants appear, change in form or frequency, and are lost. Some of these microevolutionary processes have clear counterparts in genetic evolution, such as forms of cultural selection, cultural drift, and random cultural mutation. Others appear unique to cultural evolution, such as the introduction of non-random (“guided”) variation and psychological biases such as conformity. Cultural macroevolution concerns the emergence and diversification of cultural variation at or above the level of the society. This includes the study of cultural phylogenies or networks that capture historical relationships between languages, folk tales and artifacts, or the process of cultural group selection, where societies compete on the basis of their internal cooperativeness and which purportedly explains the emergence of human ultrasociality. Common methods employed in the field of cultural evolution include mathematical models, lab experiments, ethnographic field studies, and historical (e.g., archival, archaeological) analyses. The study of culture and cultural evolution across various nonhuman species is also common, often with the aim of uncovering the evolutionary roots of various cultural capacities (e.g., imitation, teaching).

General Overviews

Recent, accessible, book-length overviews of the field of cultural evolution are provided by Richerson and Boyd 2005, Mesoudi 2011, and Henrich 2015. Two books from the 1980s—Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981 and Boyd and Richerson 1985—provide the conceptual foundation for much modern cultural evolution research. These books in large part contain technically advanced mathematical models of cultural evolution using the methods of population genetics, but can still be read by the non-mathematically-inclined for their conceptual definitions and conclusions. Durham 1991, while now somewhat outdated, provides numerous case studies of gene-culture coevolution, such as the coevolution of cultural practices of dairy farming with genes for lactose tolerance. Sperber 1996 presents an alternative, more cognitivist perspective on cultural evolution to that of Boyd and Richerson, focusing on the individual transformation of cultural representations. Two recent volumes arising from conferences/workshops—Whiten, et al. 2012 and Richerson and Christiansen 2013—contain themed and sometimes technical chapters on specific topics. Lewens 2015 provides a recent overview and valuable critical analysis of cultural evolution from the perspective of a philosopher of science.

  • Boyd, R., and P. J. Richerson. 1985. Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.

    A classic text presenting mathematical population-genetic-style analyses of the evolution of culture, the consequences of learning biases such as conformity, guided variation and prestige bias, and the authors’ cultural group selection hypothesis for the emergence of human prosociality.

  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., and M. W. Feldman. 1981. Cultural transmission and evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A classic text that provides a mathematical, quantitative foundation for the field of cultural evolution. The authors model the consequences of different cultural transmission pathways (vertical, oblique, and horizontal) and patterns (one-to-many, or many-to-one transmission), and compare regimes of cultural selection and cultural drift.

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

    Contains several detailed case studies of gene-culture coevolution drawing on ethnographic and historical evidence. Cases discussed include the coevolution of cultural dairy farming practices and genes for lactose tolerance, and the coevolution of forest-clearing horticultural practices (which allow mosquitoes to breed and spread malaria) and sickle cell anaemia alleles (which confer partial resistance to malaria).

  • Henrich, J. 2015. The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A wide-ranging book arguing that cultural evolution has drastically altered our species’ evolutionary success, allowing us to inhabit a wide range of environments using technology and social customs, as well as shaping our species’ biology via gene-culture coevolution.

  • Lewens, T. 2015. Cultural evolution: Conceptual challenges. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674183.001.0001

    A philosopher of science’s take on the field of cultural evolution, presenting thoughtful critical analyses of underlying assumptions and key concepts. Lewens emerges generally sympathetic to cultural evolution, with recommendations for how to clarify concepts and enrich the field (e.g., by better incorporating development).

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226520452.001.0001

    An overview of the entire field of cultural evolution, from the foundational mathematical models of Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, through to lab experiments and ethnographic field studies, to cultural phylogenetics and historical analyses. It is argued that evolutionary theory provides a much-needed coherent conceptual framework within which the currently separate branches of the social sciences may be integrated.

  • Richerson, P. J., and R. Boyd. 2005. Not by genes alone. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.

    An accessible overview of these authors’ more technical 1985 book, covering many of the same topics.

  • Richerson, P. J., and M. H. Christiansen. 2013. Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language, and religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262019750.001.0001

    Based on a workshop sponsored by the Ernst Strüngmann Foundation, this volume contains chapters written by a wide range of scholars on the cultural evolution of language, sociality, technology/science, and religion.

  • Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining culture: A naturalistic approach. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A cognitive anthropologist’s theory of cultural evolution, which places more emphasis on how individuals transform knowledge according to aspects of cognition, rather than the high-fidelity copying of cultural variants.

  • Whiten, A., R. A. Hinde, K. N. Laland, and C. B. Stringer. 2012. Culture evolves. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Emerging from a Royal Society conference, this collection of papers covers a range of topics including nonhuman culture in fish, birds and mammals, the archaeological record pertaining to prehistoric cultural evolution, and human social learning in childhood and across societies.

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