Is human cultural evolution Darwinian? Evidence reviewed from the perspective of The Origin of Species


The claim that human culture evolves through the differential adoption of cultural variants, in a manner analogous to the evolution of biological species, has been greeted with much resistance and confusion. Here we demonstrate that as compelling a case can now be made that cultural evolution has key Darwinian properties, as Darwin himself presented for biological evolution in The Origin of Species . Culture is shown to exhibit variation, competition, inheritance, and the accumulation of successive cultural modifications over time. Adaptation, convergence, and the loss or change of function can also be identified in culture. Just as Darwin knew nothing of genes or particulate inheritance, a case for Darwinian cultural evolution can be made irrespective of whether unitary cultural replicators exist or whether cultural transmission mechanisms are well understood.

Evolution 58, 1–11