Cultural evolution and cultural psychology


Cultural evolution is a branch of the evolutionary sciences which assumes that (i) human cognition and behaviour is shaped not only by genetic inheritance, but also cultural inheritance (also known as social learning), and (ii) this cultural inheritance constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary system that can be analysed and studied using tools borrowed from evolutionary biology. In this chapter I explore the numerous compatibilities between the fields of cultural evolution and cultural psychology, and the potential mutual benefits from their closer alignment. First, understanding the evolutionary context within which human psychology emerged gives added significance to the findings of cultural psychologists, which reinforce the conclusion reached by cultural evolution scholars that humans inhabit a `cultural niche’ within which the major means of adaptation to difference environments is cultural, rather than genetic. Hence, we should not be surprised that human psychology shows substantial cross-cultural variation. Second, a focus on cultural transmission pathways, drawing on cultural evolution models and empirical research, can help to explain to the maintenance of, and potential changes in, cultural variation in psychological processes. Evidence from migrants, in particular, points to a mix of vertical, oblique and horizontal cultural transmission that can explain the differential stability of different cultural dimensions. Third, cultural evolutionary methods offer powerful means of testing historical (``macro-evolutionary’') hypotheses put forward by cultural psychologists for the origin of psychological differences. Explanations in terms of means of subsistence, rates of environmental change or pathogen prevalence can be tested using quantitative models and phylogenetic analyses that can be used to reconstruct cultural lineages. Evolutionary considerations also point to potential problems with current cross-country comparisons conducted within cultural psychology, such as the non-independence of data points due to shared cultural history. Finally, I argue that cultural psychology can play a central role in a synthetic evolutionary science of culture, providing valuable links between individual-oriented disciplines such as experimental psychology and neuroscience on the one hand, and society-oriented disciplines such as anthropology, history and sociology on the other, all within an evolutionary framework that provides links to the biological sciences.

In Shinobu Kitayama and Dov Cohen (ed.) Handbook of Cultural Psychology 2nd edition. Guilford Press, pp. 144–162