Research Article: The Cultural Evolution of Human Nature

Date Published: September 28, 2019

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Mark Stanford.


Recent years have seen the growing promise of cultural evolutionary theory as a new approach to bringing human behaviour fully within the broader evolutionary synthesis. This review of two recent seminal works on this topic argues that cultural evolution now holds the potential to bring together fields as disparate as neuroscience and social anthropology within a unified explanatory and ontological framework.

Partial Text

What makes humans different from other animals? It is an old question, and one which many have given up as meaningless or unanswerable. The simple fact of our unparalleled range and adaptability as a species cannot be denied, and indeed we seem to feel we are special for many more reasons than that. One response to this instinct is to resist it: having evolved like all other animals, our weird and wonderful panoply of behaviours is the result of neither individual creativity nor cultural supervenience, but is instead the simple product of millions of years of evolution, like the mating dance of birds or the territorial displays of octopi. If they seem unintelligible or even maladaptive, that is simply because evolution is very slow; our minds are adapted not to our present environment, but to the long vanished world of our ancestors (Cosmides and Tooby 2003). It may seem to us that behaviours such as joining religious cults, suicide bombing and racial prejudice are as irrational as they are undesirable, but in fact, on the account offered by standard evolutionary psychology, they are perfectly intelligible as the results of our ‘stone age minds’ misfiring and triggering behaviours that were adaptive long ago (Cosmides and Tooby 1987).

In A Different Kind of Animal (2018), Robert Boyd, one of the founding fathers of the discipline of cultural evolution, sketches the current state of the field, and outlines his current theoretical position. Boyd places particular emphasis on blind imitation, as opposed to intelligent design, as an explanation for the diffusion of innovations throughout a population. That is, he shows that we become better adapted to our environments not by thinking consciously about how to solve problems better, but simply through evolutionary processes triggered by blind imitation.

But while the cultural evolutionists are keen to point out that, contrary to the tendency of evolutionary psychologists to treat human minds as ‘hard-wired’ computers, much human behaviour and concepts are malleable and subject to a much faster form of evolution, it is commonly assumed that for cultural evolution to take place, certain innate mental capacities must be present, such as the ability to imitate, or elements of ‘theory of mind’. Thus with the evolutionary psychologists, many assume that these are mental modules, produced by genetic evolution in some ancient adaptive environment, after which cultural evolution became possible, and built on the foundation of these modules, but did not replace them.

The accounts offered by Boyd and Heyes are largely complementary. Boyd’s argument for a form of cultural evolution led by blind imitation and cultural group selection can clearly be extended to include the evolution of cognitive mechanisms themselves. Indeed, Heyes comes down firmly on the side of cultural group selection, arguing that cognitive gadgets which are today universal may have evolved by virtue of advantages they conferred to those groups which exhibited the cultural norms necessary to scaffold them.




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