Ernst Strüngmann Forum


Cultural Evolution

Peter J. Richerson and Morten H. Christiansen, Chairpersons

May 27–June 1, 2012

Program Advisory Committee

Morten H. Christiansen, Dept. of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.
Herbert Gintis, Santa Fe Institute and Central European University, Northampton, MA, U.S.A.
Stephen C. Levinson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Peter J. Richerson, Dept. of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California–Davis, Davis, CA
Stephen Shennan
, University College London, Institute of Archaeology, London, U.K.
Edward G. Slingerland, Asian Center, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada


To explore the role of cultural evolution in explaining human social structure, technology, language and religion

Key Questions

  • What can we explain by means of cultural evolution that does not follow from other perspectives, such as memetics and innatist theories?
  • Can we sketch roughly how general models of cultural evolution will come to differ as they are specialized to fit various domains?
  • Is there a detectable signature of cultural evolution that can be observed across all domains?
  • How can researchers and scholars in different areas of enquiry benefit from adopting cultural evolutionary tools?
  • How can variations in the rates of cultural evolution across the broad sweep of human history and prehistory be explained?
  • Are different domains amenable to different degrees of cultural engineering?
Top of page


A considerable amount of work has been done on the importance of cultural evolution across a variety of disciplines with a stake in understanding human behavior. Culture in its many manifestations—social organization, technology, science, language, religion—is responsible for the striking difference between humans and other organisms, and for our ecological dominance of the Earth. A rigorous science of cultural evolution began to develop in earnest in the 1970s and has now been energized by a second generation of active and creative scholars. Moreover, the field has been propelled forward by recent methodological innovations (e.g., Bayesian phylogenetics, Dollo methods) that have been applied broadly across fields, from palaeolithic jewelry to Turkic carpets to whole language families.

As a synthetic field, research on cultural evolution touches all areas of the human sciences, not least human biology, as well as many areas within the humanities. It also has considerable relevance to animal behavior, since many animals turn out to have systems of social learning. More controversially, many themes studied by cultural evolutionists may have application to organic inheritance if the idea of epigenetic inheritance is found to have important elements of intergenerational inheritance.

As rapidly as the field of cultural evolution has grown, most social and biological scientists as well as most researchers in humanities still have limited understanding of the insights that this newly invigorated field can deliver. In many cases, the key contributions made in the past and the promises of the new tools have not been sufficiently appreciated, thus inhibiting their application to research in any number of areas. Part of the reason for this can be found in the way various disciplines conduct their work (e.g., in relative isolation and with little interaction between established fields). Thus, establishing the necessary connections across research areas, and reinforcing those already in existence, is imperative—not only for the field of cultural evolution as a whole, but also for the subfields found across the humanities and the social and biological sciences as well.

Many overarching questions depend upon a better understanding of cultural evolutionary processes. Take, for example, the importance of culture and culture-like systems in humans compared to non-human animals: Why did humans come to have a hypertrophied system for imitation and teaching? Why did human culture develop slowly at first and increase rapidly in the recent past and especially in the present? Do mismatches in rates of cultural evolution (rapid technological change, slow social change) currently pose risks for humans? Past human societies have undergone spectacular booms and busts. Are the causes of such phenomena at work in societies today? Much policy making can be construed as attempts to deliberately engineer cultural change, but why do some policy initiatives produce the changes envisioned by their makers (mass public education) while others fail (wars on drugs)?

There are many aspects of human endeavor where our understanding can be improved by adopting a cultural evolutionary perspective, including the topics upon which the Forum will concentrate: social systems, technology, language and religion. It has become increasingly clear that human biology was remodeled as humans adapted to the cultural evolution of agricultural subsistence systems a few thousand years ago. Yet, so far the potential of the field has hardly been tapped. For example, much of the most sophisticated modeling of culture has been rather generic. The models specify the abstract structure of the inheritance system (vertical, oblique or horizontal transmission) and a set of forces that drive cultural change (innovation, biased transmission, natural selection on cultural variation, random drift) and are often applied to narrow cases (dairying and adult lactase secretion, the demographic transition). This Forum will consider whether intermediate levels of generality hold promise. Do models of the evolution of social organization, technology, language, and religion have interesting similarities across each domain? Can we hope for empirical generalizations at this level of abstraction? Of course these four domains are not at all isolated from one another in real life, but the field would benefit from a more systematically organized theoretical and empirical effort, not least because the traditional disciplines are so organized.

At the same time commonalities across the traditional disciples are also important and interesting to the extent that they exist. Gene-culture coevolution theory has great promise as a vehicle for communication among the social sciences and between the social sciences, the humanities, and the natural sciences. The common problem is change over time in systems where the past influences the present. As Darwin noted, the phrase “descent with modification” fits the evolution of societies, technologies and languages as well as biological organisms. But how do we know that something is the product of an evolutionary process? Should we expect to observe tree-like phylogenetic relationships across both cultural and biological domains or will culture produce more heavily reticulated phylogenies? Evolutionists in the broadest sense thus have to confront problems of the complexity and diversity of the systems they study and of historical contingency.

This Forum will provide a unique opportunity to promote cross-disciplinary understanding of cultural evolution by taking stock of current research and past successes as well as the various tools available, both old and new. The unique Forum format will serve this purpose well, and position science and the humanities to better meet future challenges in light of cultural evolution.

Top of page

Group 1: The Cultural Evolution of the Structure of Human Groups

  • How can historical, biological, anthropological, and sociological insights into social structure be integrated into a framework to foster mutually reinforcing cultural research across disciplines?
  • What human psychological predispositions are central to understand the links between culture and social behavior?
  • What gives rise to egalitarian vs. hierarchical and/or exploitative societies?
  • How do culture, social norms, and institutions support the evolution of the division of labor in human societies?
  • How important are collective decision-making mechanisms compared to individual ones in the evolution of social systems?
  • What are the key factors that give rise to innovations and their propagation in social and economic systems?
  • Is the evolution of social systems the factor that limits the rate of evolution of technology?
  • What are the policy implications of cultural evolutionary theories of human behavior?

Group 2: The Cultural Evolution of Technology and Science

  • How would a cultural evolution model account for the origins of science and technology?
  • What is the relationship between scientific reasoning and everyday practical reasoning?
  • What role do cultural technologies play in scaffolding human cognition?
  • How have population size and subpopulation connectedness affected rates of technical evolution?
  • Why have average rates of technical innovation varied so greatly over hominin history?
  • Is the rate of increase of technological sophistication dependent on existing technological sophistication?
  • What role do social institutions play in the acceleration or inhibition of technological evolution?

Group 3: The Cultural Evolution of Language

  • How do gene-culture coevolutionary processes work in language?
  • To what degree might weak biological biases be amplified through processes of cultural transmission to produce strong constraints on a cultural scale?
  • What is the nature of the cognitive constraints and skills that children bring to the task of language acquisition?
  • Given that language has a multi-level structure, how does cultural evolution work across different levels and on what time-scales?
  • To what extent are the observable patterns of linguistic diversity explicable given the current tools of the theory of cultural evolution?
  • What aspects of language are unlikely to be the products of cultural evolution?
  • What needs to be in place for the cultural evolution of language to take off?
  • Can and should language competition be managed?

Group 4: The Cultural Evolution of Religion

  • Are there trends in the history of religion that can only be explained through a cultural evolutionary model?
  • How do innate cognitive constraints interact with cultural evolution in the production of religious belief and behavior?
  • How do innate cognitive constraints interact with cultural evolution in the production of religious belief and behavior?
  • Is there a special relationship between particular forms of religion and the scale of societies?
  • How do knowledge systems evolve that have no direct selective consequences or even negative consequences?
  • Are the same or different processes of cultural evolution at work across the different domains of human knowledge production (e.g., science and religion)?
  • How tightly is the evolution of religion tied to functional domains of technology and social organization?
  • How can a cultural evolutionary model inform our understanding of religious conflict?
Top of page