The cultural evolution of technology and science


This chapter explores how the principles and methods of cultural evolution can inform our understanding of technology and science. Both technology and science are prime examples of cumulative cultural evolution, with each generation preserving and building upon the achievements of prior generations. A key benefit of an evolutionary approach to technological or scientific change is ‘population thinking,’ where broad trends and patterns are explained in terms of individual-level mechanisms of variation, selection, and transmission. This chapter outlines some of these mechanisms and their implications for technological change, including sources of innovation, types of social learning, facilitatory developmental factors, and cultural transmission mechanisms. The role of external representations and human-constructed environments in technological evolution are explored, and factors are examined which determine the varying rates of technological change over time: from intrinsic characteristics of single technological traits, such as efficacy or manufacturing cost, to larger social and population-level factors, such as population size or social institutions. Science can be viewed as both a product of cultural evolution as well as a form of cultural evolution in its own right. Science and technology constitute separate yet interacting evolutionary processes. Outstanding issues and promising avenues for future investigation are highlighted and potential applications of this work are noted.

In Peter J Richerson and Morten H Christiansen (ed.) Cultural evolution: society, technology, language, and religion. MIT Press, pp. 193–216