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Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion

edited by Peter J. Richerson and Morten H. Christiansen

Published by MIT Press Hardcover ISBN: 9780262019750 eBook  ISBN: 9780262318280

1 -  Introduction - PDF

Peter J. Richerson and Morten H. Christiansen

Structure of Human Groups

2 - Zoon Politicon: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Sociopolitical Systems - Abstract

Herbert Gintis and Carel van Schaik

3 - Human Cooperation among Kin and Close Associates May Require Enforcement of Norms by Third Parties - Abstract - PDF

Sarah Mathew, Robert Boyd, and Matthijs Van Veelen

4 - The Puzzle of Human Ultrasociality: How Did Large-Scale Complex Societies Evolve? - Abstract

Peter Turchin

5 - Like Me: A Homophily-Based Account of Human Culture - Abstract

Daniel B. M. Haun and Harriet Over

6 - Cultural Evolution of the Structure of Human Groups - Abstract - PDF

Fiona M. Jordan, Carel van Schaik, Pieter François, Herbert Gintis, Daniel B. M. Haun, Daniel J. Hruschka, Marco A. Janssen, James A. Kitts, Laurent Lehmann, Sarah Mathew, Peter J. Richerson, Peter Turchin, and Polly Wiessner

Technology and Science

7 - The Cultural Evolution of Technology: Facts and Theories - Abstract - PDF

Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, and Joseph Henrich

8 - Long-Term Trajectories of Technological Change - Abstract

Stephen Shennan

9 - Neuroscience of Technology - Abstract

Dietrich Stout

10 - Scientific Method as Cultural Innovation - Abstract

Robert N. McCauley

11 - The Cultural Evolution of Technology and Science - Abstract - PDF

Alex Mesoudi, Kevin N. Laland, Robert Boyd, Briggs Buchanan, Emma Flynn, Robert N. McCauley, Jürgen Renn, Victoria Reyes-García, Stephen Shennan, Dietrich Stout, and Claudio Tennie


12 - The Interplay of Genetic and Cultural Factors in Ongoing Language Evolution - Abstract

Stephen C. Levinson and Dan Dediu

13 - Language Diversity as a Resource for Understanding Cultural Evolution - Abstract

Nicholas Evans

14 - Language Acquisition as a Cultural Process - Abstract - PDF

Elena Lieven

15 - Phylogenetic Models of Language Change: Three New Questions - Abstract

Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, and Quentin D. Atkinson

16 - Cultural Evolution of Language - Abstract - PDF

Dan Dediu,Michael Cysouw, Stephen C. Levinson, Andrea Baronchelli, Morten H. Christiansen, William Croft, Nicholas Evans, Simon Garrod, Russell D. Gray, Anne Kandler, and Elena Lieven


17 - The Evolution of Prosocial Religions - Abstract - PDF

Edward Slingerland, Joseph Henrich, and Ara Norenzayan

18 - Rethinking Proximate Causation and Development in Religious Evolution - Abstract

Harvey Whitehouse

19 - Religious Prosociality: A Synthesis - Abstract

Ara Norenzayan, Joseph Henrich, and Edward Slingerland

20 - The Cultural Evolution of Religion - Abstract - PDF

Joseph Bulbulia, Armin W. Geertz, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Nicholas Evans, Pieter François, Herbert Gintis, Russell D. Gray, Joseph Henrich, Fiona M. Jordon, Ara Norenzayan, Peter J. Richerson, Edward Slingerland, Peter Turchin, Harvey Whitehouse, Thomas Widlok, and David S. Wilson

21 - Appendix: Developmental Issues - PDF

Elena Lieven

22 - Bibliography - PDF

Our primate ancestors evolved a complex sociopolitical order based on a social dominance hierarchy in multi-male/multi-female groups. The emergence of bipedalism and cooperative breeding in the hominin line, together with environmental developments which made a diet of meat from large animals fitness enhancing, as well as cultural innovation in the form of fire and cooking, created a niche for hominins in which there was a high return to coordinated, cooperative scavenging or hunting of large mammals. This, in turn, led to the use of stones and spears as lethal weapons.

The availability of lethal weapons in early hominin society undermined the standard social dominance hierarchy of multi-male/multi-female primates. The successful sociopolitical structure that replaced the ancestral social dominance hierarchy was a political system in which success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and motivate. This system persisted until cultural changes in the Holocene fostered the accumulation of material wealth, through which it became possible once again to sustain a social dominance hierarchy, because elites could now surround themselves with male relatives and paid protectors.

This scenario suggests that humans are predisposed to seek dominance when this is not excessively costly, but also to form coalitions to depose pretenders to power. Much of human political history is the working out of these oppositional forces.

While our capacity for large-scale cooperation is striking, humans also cooperate with kin and close associates much more than most other vertebrates. Existing theories do not satisfactorily explain this difference. Moreover, mechanisms posited for explaining large-scale human cooperation, like norms, third-party judgments and sanctions, also seem to be essential in regulating interactions among kin and close associates. It is hypothesized that norms and third-party judgments are crucial even for small-scale cooperation, and that kin selection and direct reciprocity alone cannot generate the degree of small-scale cooperation needed to sustain the human life history.

After a long and turbulent history, the study of human cultural evolution is finally becoming comparable to the study of genetic evolution, with human history the counterpart of the biological fossil record. One of the most remarkable products of cultural evolution has been an increase in the scale of human societies by many orders of magnitude. Today, the great majority of humans live in complex societies, which can only exist due to extensive cooperation among large numbers of individuals. Ultrasociality, the ability of humans to cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals, presents a puzzle to both evolutionary and social theory. Although much theoretical effort has been devoted to understanding the evolution of cooperation in small-scale groups (hunter-gatherers living in societies of hundreds to a few thousand individuals), the same cannot be said about the next phase of human evolution, the rise of complex societies encompassing tens and hundreds of millions of people. Evolutionary biologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and others have proposed a multitude of theories to explain how complex societies evolved. However, scientific study has suffered from two limitations. First, with a few exceptions, theories have relied on verbal reasoning; formal models tend to focus on the evolution of cooperation in small groups, whereas the transition from small- to large-scale societies has been mostly neglected. Second, there has been no systematic effort to compare theoretical predictions to data. Human ultrasociality has evolved repeatedly around the world and across time, reflecting both common selection pressures and the unique contingencies affecting each case. An enormous amount of archaeological and historical information exists but has not been studied from an evolutionary perspective. Thus, explicit models that will yield specific and quantitative predictions are needed as well as databases of the cultural evolution of human ultrasociality. Furthermore, a research program combining explicit models with empirical testing of predictions is not only an academic endeavor. Understanding conditions that either promote or inhibit human ultrasociality is highly relevant for addressing the challenges of large-scale cooperation and conflict in the modern world.

This chapter presents a homophily-based account of human social structure and cultural transmission, wherein a tendency to favor similar others (homophily) is a key driving force in creating human-unique forms of culture. Homophily also accounts for observed striking differences between human groups. From early in development, evidence demonstrates that humans show a strong tendency to interact with, and learn from, individuals who are similar to themselves. It is proposed that homophilic preferences of the group, in general, creates a feedback loop to ensure that children engage in high-fidelity copying of the group’s behavioral repertoire. This allows children to reap the benefits of others’ homophilic preferences and so maintain their position within the group. In consequence, homophilic preferences have transformed a number of mechanisms which humans share with other species (e.g., emulation and majority-biased transmission) into human-unique variants (e.g., social imitation and conformity). Homophilic preferences have, furthermore, spawned a new tendency to interpret the structure of actions as social signals: norm psychology. The homophily account thus connects previously disparate findings in comparative, developmental, and social psychology and provides a unified account of the importance of the preference for similar others in species-specific human social behavior.

Small-scale human societies are a leap in size and complexity from those of our primate ancestors. We propose that the behavioral predispositions which allowed the evolution of small-scale societies were also those that allowed the cultural evolution of large-scale sociality, in the form of multiple transitions to large-scale societies. Although sufficient, the cultural evolutionary processes that acted on these predispositions also needed a unique set of niche parameters, including ecological factors, guiding norms, and technologies of social control and coordination. Identifying the regularities and patterns in these factors will be the empirical challenge for the future.

The gradual cumulative cultural evolution of locally adaptive technologies has played a crucial role in our species’ rapid expansion across the globe. Until recently, human artifacts were not obviously more complex than those made by organisms that lack cultural learning and have limited cognitive capacities. However, cultural evolution creates adaptive tools much more rapidly than genetic evolution creates morphological adaptations. Human tools are finely adapted to local conditions, a fact that seems to preclude explanations of cultural adaptation based on innate cognitive attractors. Theoretical work indicates that culture can lead to cumulative adaptation in a number of different ways. There are many important unsolved problems regarding the cultural evolution of technology. We do not know how accurate cultural learning is in the wild, what maintains cultural continuity through time, or whether cultural adaptation typically requires the cultural transmission of causal understandings.

The study of technology is a field in which generalized evolutionary ideas have been current for many years. However, when we start trying to implement a cultural evolutionary approach more rigorously, it turns out to be more complex than usually supposed. One of the important benefits of taking a cultural evolutionary approach is that it goes beyond relatively simple ideas of competition and technological improvement, and introduces a range of other forces whose impact is not often considered. In the case of technology, the entities that are the subject of variation, inheritance, and selection processes are technological lineages, recipes for techniques, routines, and practices linked by ancestor–descendant relationships. To understand them, we must first address histories of the technologies themselves before we can examine the histories of the human populations through which they are transmitted, which may depend at least partly on the histories of technologies. A number of examples of technological innovation and transmission are examined to illustrate the variety of factors affecting them.

Although there is a burgeoning neuroscience of tool use, there is nothing that might be properly called a neuroscience of technology. This review aims to sketch the outlines of such a subject area and its relevance to the study of cultural evolution. Technology is itself an ill-defined term and is often taken to correspond loosely to human action that (a) involves the use or modification of objects, (b) displays a complexly organized multilevel structure, and (c) is socially reproduced. These characteristics may be better understood with reference to neuroscience research on perceptual-motor control, object manipulation, motor resonance, imitation learning, and goal-directed action. Such consideration suggests a number of biases which may affect the cultural evolution of technologies.

Consideration of scientific method as a cultural innovation requires examining the philosophy and sociology of science, anthropology, developmental, cognitive, and social psychology as well as the histories of science and technology. Anarchistic philosophical proposals about science set the stage for subsequent endorsements of quite liberal conceptions of science and scientific thinking that root these pursuits in basic features of human—even animal—cognition or in the intimate connection between science and technology. That every methodological prescription has its limits or that science is not uniform does not entail methodological anarchism. Like any other radial category, science includes more and less central instances and practices. Justifications for such liberality regarding science that are grounded in the acquisition of empirical knowledge by infants and other species downplay the sciences’ systematic approach to criticizing hypotheses and scientists’ mastery of a vast collection of intellectual tools, facts, and theories. Justifications that look to the close ties between science and technology neglect reasons for distinguishing them. Intimate ties are not inextricable ties. Research on scientific cognition suggests that, in some respects, human minds are not well suited to do science and that measures progressively sustaining science’s systematic program of criticism and its ever more counterintuitive representations both depend on cultural achievements and are themselves cultural achievements involving what have proven to be comparatively extraordinary social conditions. This richer, epistemologically unsurpassed form of science is both rare and fragile, having arisen no more than a few times in human history.

This chapter explores how the principles and methods of cultural evolution can inform our understanding of technology and science. Both technology and science are prime examples of cumulative cultural evolution, with each generation preserving and building upon the achievements of prior generations. A key benefit of an evolutionary approach to technological or scientific change is “population thinking,” where broad trends and patterns are explained in terms of individual-level mechanisms of variation, selection, and transmission. This chapter outlines some of these mechanisms and their implications for technological change, including sources of innovation, types of social learning, facilitatory developmental factors, and cultural transmission mechanisms. The role of external representations and human-constructed environments in technological evolution are explored, and factors are examined which determine the varying rates of technological change over time: from intrinsic characteristics of single technological traits, such as efficacy or manufacturing cost, to larger social and population-level factors, such as population size or social institutions. Science can be viewed as both a product of cultural evolution as well as a form of cultural evolution in its own right. Science and technology constitute separate yet interacting evolutionary processes. Outstanding issues and promising avenues for future investigation are highlighted and potential applications of this work are noted.

This chapter discusses recent advances in our understanding of the complex interplay between cultural and biological factors in language change and evolution. Three “myths” (the independence of biological and cultural evolution, a fixed biological foundation for culture, and the cognitive uniformity of humans) are identified and falsified. Strong genetic biases are shown to affect language profoundly, using the example of village sign languages that emerge and complexify due to persistent high frequencies of genetic deafness in certain communities. Evidence is presented for the genetic bases of language and speech, and the extensive genetic variation within populations affecting them. Finally, it is proposed that in addition to intrapopulation variation, interpopulation differences in genetic biases that affect language and speech contribute to the emergence of linguistic diversity, through iterated cultural transmission across generations as well as communication and alignment within them. Thus, biological and cultural processes cannot be meaningfully separated when studying the cultural evolution of language.

The study of linguistic diversity, and the factors driving change between language states, in different sociocultural contexts, arguably provides the best arena of human culture for the application of evolutionary approaches, as Darwin realized. After a long period in which this potential has been neglected, the scene is now set for a new reconnection of evolutionary approaches to the astonishingly diverse range of languages around the world, many on the verge of extinction without trace.

This chapter outlines the various ways coevolutionary models can be applied to language change, and surveys the many ways diversity manifests itself both in language structure and in the organization of diversity beyond the language unit. Problems of establishing comparability and characterizing the full dimensions of the design space are discussed, including the distribution of characters across it, the correlations between them, and the challenge of establishing diachronic typologies (i.e., establishing the likelihood of different types of transition, including the insights that could be reached through properly focused studies of micro-variation). It concludes by surveying the main types of selection that mold the emergence of linguistic diversity—psychological/physiological, system/semiotic, and genetic/ epidemiological—and spells out seven major challenges that confront further studies of linguistic diversity within an evolutionary framework.

It is possible to identify three elements involved in the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of the human language ability: (a) specific speech-related abilities, (b) cognitive abilities related to signification, symbol manipulation, and categorization, and (c) communicative or interactive abilities. This chapter suggests that although all three elements have a universal basis in evolution and development, they are affected at a rapid pace by the culture within which the infant develops. During the first year of life, infants become increasingly sensitive to the particularities of the ambient language(s). Their babbling shows both the restrictions on vocal production caused by the slow maturation of the speech apparatus and the influence of the language they are hearing. By 12 months of age, potentially primate-wide discriminations between types of events have given way to categorizations that reflect those of the language that the child is learning. Despite differences across cultures in both the ideologies and practices of child rearing, the onset of shared intentionality occurs at around nine months of age and does not seem to be affected by cultural differences in ways of interacting with babies. Once infants start to comprehend and produce language, there is a great deal of evidence, mainly from research in modern industrial cultures, that language development is influenced by quantitative and qualitative aspects of the ways in which children are spoken to. The chapter concludes with questions concerning the role of language in socialization and the relationship between concepts of socialization and culture.

Computational methods derived from evolutionary biology are increasingly being applied to the study of cultural evolution. This is particularly the case in studies of language evolution, where phylogenetic methods have recently been used to test hypotheses about divergence dates, rates of lexical change, borrowing, and putative language universals. This chapter outlines three new and related questions that could be productively tackled with computational phylogenetic methods: What drives language diversification? What drives differences in the rate of linguistic change (disparity)? Can we identify cultural and linguistic homelands?

This chapter argues that an evolutionary cultural approach to language not only has already proven fruitful, but it probably holds the key to understand many puzzling aspects of language, its change and origins. The chapter begins by highlighting several still common misconceptions about language that might seem to call into question a cultural evolutionary approach. It explores the antiquity of language and sketches a general evolutionary approach discussing the aspects of function, fitness, replication, and selection, as well the relevant units of linguistic evolution. In this context, the chapter looks at some fundamental aspects of linguistic diversity such as the nature of the design space, the mechanisms generating it, and the shape and fabric of language. Given that biology is another evolutionary system, its complex coevolution with language needs to be understood in order to have a proper theory of language. Throughout the chapter, various challenges are identified and discussed, sketching promising directions for future research. The chapter ends by listing the necessary data, methods, and theoretical developments required for a grounded evolutionary approach to language.

Building on foundations from the cognitive science of religion, this chapter synthesizes theoretical insights and empirical evidence concerning the processes by which cultural evolutionary processes driven by intergroup competition may have shaped the package of beliefs, rituals, practices, and institutions that constitute modern world religions. Five different hypothesized mechanisms are presented through which cultural group selection may have operated to increase the scale of cooperation, expand the sphere of trustworthy interactions, galvanize group solidarity, and sustain group-beneficial beliefs and practices. The mechanisms discussed involve extravagant displays, supernatural monitoring and incentives, ritual practices, fictive kinship, and moral realism. Various lines of supporting evidence are reviewed and archaeological and historical evidence is summarized from early China (roughly 2000 BCE–220 BCE), where prosocial religion and rituals coevolved with societal complexity.

Efforts to understand cultural evolution, and its articulation with biological evolution, have tended to focus on problems of ultimate rather than proximate causation; that is on issues of function and selection rather than issues of mechanism and development. Although we now have sophisticated models of multilevel selection (Wilson 2002) and gene–culture coevolution (Boyd and Richerson 1985), we lack a similarly sophisticated account of the various levels at which proximate explanation needs to be understood. This chapter attempts to sketch out a more sophisticated framework for proximate explanation in religious evolution, inspired by C. H. Waddington’s notion of the “epigenetic landscape.” Building on this idea, three kinds of landscapes are disambiguated: epigenetic, cognitive-developmental, and social-historical. The discussion here focuses on religious phenotypes, but the general approach would be applicable to cultural practices more generally. The aim is to bring greater conceptual clarity and integration to a somewhat complex and messy cluster of research areas and, at the same time, open up new hypotheses ripe for investigation.

Religion is a ubiquitous aspect of human culture, yet until recently, relatively little was known about its natural origins and effects on human minds and societies. This is changing, as scientific interest in religion is on the rise. Debates about the evolutionary origins and functions of religion, including its origins in genetic and cultural evolution, hinge on a set of empirical claims about religious prosociality: whether, and through which particular pathways, certain religious beliefs and practices encourage prosocial behaviors. Here we synthesize and evaluate the scientific literature on religious prosociality, highlighting both gaps and open questions. Converging evidence from several fields suggests a nuanced pattern such that some religious beliefs and practices, under specific sociohistorical contexts, foster prosocial behaviors among strangers. This emerging picture is beginning to reveal the psychological mechanisms underlying religious prosociality. Further progress will depend on resolving outstanding puzzles, such as whether religious prosociality exists in small-scale societies, the extent to which it is constrained by in-group boundaries, and the psychology underlying various forms of disbelief.

Religion may be one factor that enabled large-scale complex human societies to evolve. Utilizing a cultural evolutionary approach, this chapter seeks explanations for patterns of complexity and variation in religion within and across groups, over time. Properties of religious systems (e.g., rituals, ritualized behaviors, overimitation, synchrony, sacred values) are examined at different social scales, from small-scale forager to large-scale urban societies. The role of religion in transitional societies is discussed, as well as the impact of witchcraft, superhuman policing, and the cultural evolution of moralizing gods. The shift from an imagistic to a doctrinal mode of religiosity is examined, as are the relationships between sacred values and secular worlds. Cultural evolutionary approaches to religion require evidence and methods from collaborative and multidisciplinary science. The chapter concludes with an overview of several projects that are working to provide conceptual, methodological, and empirical groundwork.