The study of culture and evolution across disciplines


A source of continued tension within the evolutionary human behavioural / social sciences, as well as between these fields and the traditional social sciences, is how to conceptualise ‘culture’ in its various manifestations and guises. One of the earliest criticisms of E O Wilson’s sociobiology project was the focus on presumed genetically evolved behavioural universals, and lack of attention to cultural diversity and cultural (as opposed to genetic) history. As sociobiology split into different fields during the 1980s, each developed their own approaches and assumptions. Human behavioural ecologists employed the `phenotypic gambit’, assuming that culture is a proximate means by which natural selection generates currently-adaptive behavioural strategies. Evolutionary psychologists distinguished between transmitted and evoked culture, the former involving the social transmission of information, the latter involving the triggering of genetically-prespecified behaviours in response to different environmental cues (typically ancestral cues, such that behaviour may no longer be currently adaptive). Evoked culture has been the focus of most research in evolutionary psychology. Cognitive anthropologists have a similar notion of ‘cultural attraction’, where universal aspects of cognition evoke predictable responses due to individual learning. Finally, cultural evolution (or gene-culture coevolution) approaches stress the causal role of transmitted culture. Here, human cognition is assumed to be relatively domain-general and content-free, with genetic evolution having shaped social learning processes to allow the rapid spread of locally adaptive knowledge (although occasionally allowing the spread of maladaptive behaviour, due to the partial decoupling of genetic and cultural evolution). All the while, the traditional social sciences have remained steadfastly unwilling to accept that evolutionary approaches to human behaviour have any merit or relevance, and indeed have abandoned the scientific method in favour of more politically motivated interpretive methods. Most curiously, the social sciences have abandoned the concept of culture, as they define it. I will discuss all of these approaches in terms of (i) the extent to which they give causal weight to genetic inheritance, individual learning and social learning, and how these process interact; (ii) their assumptions about the domain-specificity of human cognition; (iii) ultimate-proximate causation; (iv) specific debates over language evolution, cooperation and the demographic transition; and (v) prospects for reconciliation and integration of these tensions across the evolutionary human sciences and the social sciences more broadly.

In Lance Workman, William Reader and Jerome H. Barkow (ed.) Cambridge handbook of evolutionary perspectives on human behavior. Cambridge University Press, pp. 61–74