Towards a unified science of cultural evolution


We suggest that human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties, and argue that the structure of a science of cultural evolution should share fundamental features with the structure of the science of biological evolution. This latter claim is tested by outlining the methods and approaches employed by the principal subdisciplines of evolutionary biology and assessing whether there is an existing or potential corresponding approach to the study of cultural evolution. Existing approaches within anthropology and archaeology demonstrate a good match with the macroevolutionary methods of systematics, paleobiology, and biogeography, whereas mathematical models derived from population genetics have been successfully developed to study cultural microevolution. Much potential exists for experimental simulations and field studies of cultural microevolution, where there are opportunities to borrow further methods and hypotheses from biology. Potential also exists for the cultural equivalent of molecular genetics in ‘social cognitive neuroscience,’ although many fundamental issues have yet to be resolved. It is argued that studying culture within a unifying evolutionary framework has the potential to integrate a number of separate disciplines within the social sciences.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29, 329–383.