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The Origin and Evolution of CulturesReview - The Origin and Evolution of Cultures
by Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Sven Walter, Ph.D.
May 16th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 20)

During the seventies, evolutionary theorists started arguing that human behavior is amendable to the same Darwinian treatment as all (other) biological features. Consequently, culture has no longer been the proprietary domain of social scientists, but has been investigated by anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and psychologists in various ways, resulting in evolutionary accounts of a wide variety of human characteristics, such as sexual behavior, mate choice, marital systems, homicide, infanticide, religion and so forth. When the dust raised by the sociobiologists in the seventies had settled, four approaches to an evolutionary study of human mind, behavior, and culture emerged.

Human behavioral ecologists use evolutionary reasoning to understand our contemporary behavior on the premise that human behavioral strategies are adaptive across a wide range of ecological and cultural conditions. How, they ask, is the behavior of individuals influenced by the ecological and cultural environments in which they live, and how do the alternative behavioral strategies these individuals adopt to cope with environmental challenges give rise to cultural differences?

Evolutionary psychologists are only indirectly concerned with current adaptive behavior. Rather, they use evolutionary thinking to generate hypotheses about the adaptive problems that the human mind/brain had to solve in the selective environment of our ancestors (during, say, the Pleistocene), and in the evolved structures or mechanisms that are responsible for current behavior (be it adaptive or not).

Memeticists -- the meme being the analogue to the gene as the biological unit of inheritance -- hold that cultural evolution can be modeled by the same basic evolutionary principles of variation and descent with modification as can biological evolution. Different memes, they claim, that is pieces of cultural information, can be transmitted from one individual to another in a process of cultural selection with different rates of success. Those memes that are transmitted are thereby replicated in the same sense genes are replicated in the process of natural selection, giving rise to a Darwinian process of descent with modification in the realm of culture.

Finally, there is the dual-inheritance theory (sometimes also called 'gene-culture coevolution') of, amongst others, the anthropologists Robert Boyd (Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis ) and Peter Richerson (Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California at Davis). They agree with the other approaches just mentioned that culture should, repeated allegations of social scientists to the contrary notwithstanding, be modeled as a Darwinian evolutionary process. However, they also discard the attempts of evolutionary psychologists or human behavioral ecologists to base a study of cultural evolution solely on innate, genetically encoded information. They argue, just like memeticists, that transmitted cultural information is too important a factor to be simply ignored -- one of the most striking facts about the human species is that there are important and persistent differences between human groups that are created by culturally transmitted ideas, and not by genetic, physical, or biological differences.

What sets them apart from memeticists, though, is their conviction that there is no analogy between cultural evolution and biological evolution, between memes and genes that can ground a process of cultural evolution strictly analogous to biological evolution. Cultural and biological evolution may be similar in that important information is transmitted between individuals and both create patterns of heritable variation. The differences, however, are much more salient. For instance, culture is not based on direct replication but upon teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning, the transmission of culture is temporally extended and not restricted to parents and their offspring, cultural evolution is not necessarily particulate, and cultural variation is not necessarily random.

Culture, according to Boyd and Richerson, is part of human biology, but accounts concerned solely with genetic factors are inadequate because they ignore the fact that culture itself can and does shape the adaptive environment in which biological evolution takes place -- culture constrains genetic evolution by creating durable changes in human behavior, so that human genes necessarily evolve in a culturally constructed environment. Conversely, accounts aimed solely at explaining cultural replication are inadequate because they ignore the fact that genes and processes of biological evolution affect cultural evolution, for instance for instance by forming psychological predispositions that bias what people imitate, teach, or are able to learn. Hence, an evolutionary account of culture must acknowledge that genes and culture coevolve. This is the central tenet of dual-inheritance theory, which tries to investigate the circumstances under which the cultural habits adopted by individuals are influenced by their genes, and how, in turn, the natural selection pressures of a population the guide biological evolution may be generated by culture.

Boyd and Richerson initially presented their account in 1985 in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press). In 'The Origin and Evolution of Cultures', they have now collected twenty papers written in the period 1987 -- 2003. These papers are divided into five sections, each of which begins with a short but informative introduction by Boyd and Richerson.

Part one is entitled 'The evolution of social learning' and addresses the question how our capacity for culture -- our capacity to transmit information by teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning, which enables us to acquire skills, beliefs and values from the people around us -- has evolved. Does a capacity for social learning increase the fitness of individuals or groups of individuals, and if it does, why does it do so? Under which conditions do selective processes favor individuals able to adopt behavior from others (chapters 1, 2, and 3)? And if, as seems plausible, our capacity for cumulative cultural transmission sets us apart from all other animals and has boosted our fitness compared with the fitness of creatures restricted to individual learning or simple forms of imitation, why has it appeared only so recently in evolutionary history, and why has it not evolved independently in a number of other species as well (chapters 4 and 5)?

Part two, entitled 'Ethnic groups and markers,' is the shortest. Boyd and Richerson develop two models designed to explain under which conditions evolution favors mechanisms of cultural evolution that result in ethnic or social grouping. What are the processes that would cause human populations to split into two groups distinguished by cultural marker traits, and could these processes give rise to cultural variation that is biologically adaptive, i.e. that increases the reproductive success of the group members (chapters 6 and 7)?

Part three is entitled 'Human cooperation, reciprocity, and group selection,' and is by far the longest. Apart from the general idea of gene-culture coevolution, Boyd and Richerson are best known for the work described in the seven papers in this part (chapters 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14). There, they are concerned to show that it is very unlikely that large-scale cooperation among humans can be accounted for solely by the classical idea of reciprocity. Currently, there is a widely held consensus that group selection -- selective processes in which groups, as opposed to individuals or genes are the beneficiaries -- is a highly unlikely hypothesis that can occur only under very restricted circumstances. However, Boyd and Richerson propose an account that views cooperative behavior as the evolutionary result of a process of group selection, not at the level of biological evolution, but at the level of cultural evolution. The basic idea is that theoretical models can be constructed that show that virtually all circumstances that favour social learning also tend to lead to strong within-group conformity, which then, in turn, enables us to understand the evolution of cooperation among humans.

Part four, 'Archaeology and culture history,' contains three relatively long papers in which Boyd and Richerson try to show how an evolutionary theory of cumulative cultural evolution, in particular their own account, can be of interest and of use also for those interested primarily in history and/or archaeology (chapters 15, 16, and 17).

Part five is, as its title 'Links to other disciplines' suggests, the most heterogeneous and contains primarily meta-theoretical or methodological considerations. Boyd and Richerson develop their theory of cultural evolution as a complement of rational choice theory in economics (chapter 18), defend the use of simple mathematical models in giving evolutionary accounts of culture and cultural transmission (chapter 19), and try to show why memetics is inadequate as an approach to the study of human cultural evolution (chapter 20).

As is common among dual-inheritance theorists, Boyd and Richerson rely heavily on mathematical models (similar to those used in population genetics) that take into account specific, but simplifying, hypotheses about human psychology and the nature of human social learning in order to make intelligible how cultural variants can spread in populations, how the adoption of the beliefs, skills, habits and values of others can yield an evolutionary pay-off in terms of an increased fitness, and how and why populations of individuals with a capacity for culture can do, as a whole, better than populations of individuals without such a capacity. This is, as brief as possible, what 'Culture and the Evolutionary Process' is about.

There is much to learn from the work of Boyd and Richerson, and the initiative to bring together some of their scattered papers in this volume is laudable. Many professional anthrologists, biologists, philosophers and psychologists interested in the study of culture and the evolution of mind and behavior will benefit from it -- modulo the slight reservations discussed soon. Is there anything critical to say?

Let me briefly note one quite general point I know many find disappointing about the theoretical approach of dual-inheritance theorists. One of the good things about the alternative approach of evolutionary psychology is that it generates testable hypotheses. This prevents it (if the tests are designed carefully and unbiased) from drifting into mere evolutionary story-telling. If Boyd and Richerson, too, would use their models to generate such testable hypotheses (as they do, for instance, quite nicely in chapters 6 and 7 on the evolution of ethnic markers), this would prevent them from creating the impression of drifting into mere 'model-constructing'. That use of models brings me to a final misgiving I have about 'Culture and the Evolutionary Process.'

Is Boyd and Richerson's book a must-have for anyone interested in evolutionary accounts of culture? Unfortunately, I think, the answer is 'No, not for anyone.' Following the complicated mathematical equations that underlie many of Boyd and Richersons models is tedious, if not outright impossible, for all but the most gifted mathematicians among ordinary anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, psychologists and educated laymen. Boyd and Richerson do little to help those of us not familiar with the subtle art of mathematical models out of their predicament. They do attempt (in chapter 19), to show why the use of simple models is helpful in the study of cultural evolution (which I do not question). However, their focus there is on the question whether simple models are not too simple to yield trustworthy results, while even those 'simple' models will exceed the mathematical skills of the average reader (see, for instance, those contained in chapters 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10 or 18). This is unfortunate, because what Boyd and Richerson have to say about cultural evolution and the interaction of genetic and cultural factors is not only interesting, but most of it seems absolutely right and would certainly deserve a wider audience. It might be that, as Boyd and Richerson claim, all serious students of human behavior ought to know enough math to at least appreciate the contributions of simple mathematical models to the understanding of cultural evolution, but 'ought' famously does not imply 'is', and as long as most of us do not know enough math, it would be a great thing if we could nevertheless participate in the interesting and groundbreaking research conducted by Boyd and Richerson.

Fortunately, by the way, we can. Not in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, but in their jointly authored book Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2005)(reviewed in Metapsychology 9:47), which indeed I recommend as a must-have for anyone who takes a serious interest in the evolution of culture, mind and behavior.


2006 Sven Walter


Sven Walter, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Bielefeld, Germany


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