By: Vineeta Tawney
What is Cultural evolution?
Cultural evolution is an evolutionary theory of social change. It follows from the definition of culture as “information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation and other forms of social transmission”. Cultural evolution is the change of this information over time.
Cultural evolution, historically also known as sociocultural evolution, was originally developed in the 19th century by anthropologists stemming. Today, cultural evolution has become the basis for a growing field of scientific research in the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, psychology and organizational studies. Previously, it was believed that social change resulted from biological adaptations, but anthropologists now commonly accept that social changes arise in consequence of a combination of social, evolutionary and biological influences.
‘Cultural evolution’ is often used by archaeologists to refer to a progressive historical trend, with progress defined in ethnocentric terms, such as greater social and political complexity.
There have been a number of different approaches to the study of cultural evolution, including dual inheritance theory, sociocultural evolution, memetics, cultural evolutionism and other variants on cultural selection theory. The approaches differ not just in the history of their development and discipline of origin but in how they conceptualize the process of cultural evolution and the assumptions, theories and methods that they apply to its study.
Cultural evolution is the change of culture over time
If we define culture as “information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation and other forms of social transmission,” cultural evolution is fundamentally just the change of culture over time.
The core idea of cultural evolution is that cultural change constitutes an evolutionary process that shares fundamental similarities with – but also differs in key ways from – genetic evolution. As such, human behavior is shaped by both genetic and cultural evolution. The same can be said for many other animal species; like the tool use of chimpanzees or Caledonian crows or the complex social organization of hives for ants, bees, termites, and wasps.
The roles of transmission and innovation in cultural evolution
Thus far, we have made the analogy between alleles of a gene and forms of a cultural trait, implying that the cultural trait in question can be represented in a binary or discrete manner. Although this approximation is appropriate for some culturally transmitted traits, such as knowing or not knowing how to use a certain tool, or smoking or not smoking, some cultural traits are more naturally regarded as continuous or quantitative traits. For example, cultural norms and preferences, such as degree of risk tolerance, have been modeled as continuous traits and knowledge of a tool or technique has usefully been represented in terms of a quantitative skill level.
What is the importance of Cultural Evolution?
Cultural evolutionary theory has led to significant advances in our understanding of the effects of nonrandom mating, revealing that the transmission and dynamics of cultural traits can be sensitive to both phenotypic and environmental assorting.
Assortative mating, leading to an increased correlation between mates for genetic or cultural traits, can increase both genotypic and phenotypic variance in a population.
Models of culture and human ecology
For thousands of generations humans have been carving their existence in the world with cultural tools that have become integral to their livelihoods, thereby shaping their environment at all scales, both intentionally and unintentionally. Attempting to answer the question of what are the extensions of human biology through culture leads to a striking conclusion: There are few aspects of human biology that have not been shaped by our culture. Human culture has also affected the biology, even the survival, of nonhuman species.