Humanity’s Secret to Success: Cultural Evolution

I believe that “Cultural evolution” is an important concept that helps us to understand the origins of human progress. Cultural evolution is one of the hottest topics of the last few decades. Insightful thinkers such as Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich and Alex Mesoudi have given us valuable insights on the concept. Together these four authors have written a handful of very insightful books and articles, most of which are summarized in my library of book summaries.

These authors argue that culture is a unique human biological adaptation that differentiates us from animals. Just like all biological adaptations, culture evolved as a result of giving humans a higher chance of survival and reproduction. While many thinkers see Biology and Culture as opposites, these thinkers see them as strongly connected. Without Biology, there is no Culture. Without Culture, there are no biological humans.

Like all primates and other animals, hominids were first driven by biological evolution. Random mutations in our genes created variations. Most variations hurt the individual’s chances of survival and reproduction, so they were rapidly weeded out of the gene pool. A precious few, however, conferred an advantage in the struggle to survive and reproduce, so they were passed on and gradually increased in frequency.

Once humans “crossed the Rubicon” (i.e. evolved culture) sometime very early in our development, however, an entirely different kind of evolution came into being. Cultural evolution, while having some real similarities with biological evolution, was a game with very different rules. Now humans could adapt to a rapidly changing environment by copying what works directly rather than exclusively via genes. For this reason, Cultural evolution is critical to understanding the origins of progress.

Cultural evolution has many advantages over biological evolution in its ability to adapt to a very complex and changing environment. In biological evolution, new variations are created randomly. In cultural evolution, humans can design a new variation to solve a problem. Conscious design enables humans to consider many possible solutions and logically determine which variations have the greatest chance of success. In particular, potential innovators can ignore variations that seen very unlikely to succeed.

In biological evolution, new variations are created only once per generation. For simple creatures with short life spans measured in hours or days, this is not much of a barrier. For complex creatures with long life spans measuring in decades, however, this is a serious constraint on the rate of innovation.

In cultural evolution, there are no limits on the number of innovations that can occur within one lifetime. Cultural evolution enables a successful innovation to spread rapidly through a society within one generation. This makes it far more likely that one person with the innovation will survive to pass it on to the next generation.

In cultural evolution, humans can share ideas and designs during the experimentation process. This increases the number of variations as well as increases the success rate. The result is a greater chance that the new technology will be useful.

In biological evolution, an adaptation will only propagate through a species if it confers an advantage to surviving and reproducing. In cultural evolution, humans can innovate solutions that do not directly impact their rate of survival and reproduction. They may, for example, create innovations that make their life healthier and more enjoyable.

In biological evolution, genes cannot choose to share themselves with others. In cultural evolution, humans often share skills with other humans by consciously making it easier for others to copy them. We call this teaching. Teaching consists of a large number of complex tasks:

  1. Explaining important concepts related to mastering a skill
  2. Breaking the skill into manageable chunks
  3. Demonstrating the proper actions
  4. Carefully watching their student attempt to copy those actions
  5. Noticing incorrect actions taken by the student
  6. Explaining to the student how they can improve
  7. Emotionally reassuring the students after they fail, so the student will keep trying.

In biological evolution, a person can only acquire new information from the genes of their biological mother and father. In cultural evolution, a person can acquire new information from a wide variety of people, including:

  • Extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins)
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Teachers
  • Co-workers
  • Strangers who use information storage technologies, such as books or the internet.

The wide variety of potential people to copy gives humans far more examples than would be possible if they were restricted to biological evolution.

In biological evolution, persons cannot consciously choose whose genes to copy. The genes of children can only copy the genes of their biological parents. In cultural evolution, persons can consciously choose whom to copy. This greatly increases the chances that they are copying a useful innovation.

Common strategies include copying:

  • The most successful person in a community (for example, a successful merchant, athlete or hunter)
  • The most prestigious person in a community (for example, the local lord or celebrity)
  • The person most similar to themselves (for example, someone of the same occupation, gender or ethnicity)
  • The majority of people in their local environment (hence the classic phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”)

Each strategy for copying is likely to lead to a different solution, leading to greater amounts of variation within a society. This increases the likelihood that the thing being copied is useful.

Cultural evolution also enables an individual to copy multiple persons, each with their own variation of skills, technologies or behaviors. Studies have shown that a person who copies many different persons is more likely to get positive results than an individual who copies only one person. The individual who copies five different people instead of one is able to pick specific elements that appear to work for each person and then recombine them with other elements from other persons. In this way, copying actually leads to new variations with a higher chance of success. Once again we see how copying leads to innovation.

In biological evolution all information related to survival and reproduction is based upon the local environment. It is possible to be highly adapted to a specific microenvironment, while also totally unable to survive in another environment. In cultural evolution, humans in one society can see solutions that work substantially better for another society in a different environment. This is particularly true once transportation and communications technologies evolved enough to enable humans of very different localities to interact regularly with each other.

Biological evolution operates almost exclusively on the individual. While animals can combine into social organizations, these social organizations are usually very simple and composed of other animals that are almost identical to each other. In cultural evolution humans can form complex social organizations composed of people with widely varying skills. This enables far more complex solutions to evolve.

Biological evolution requires a certain amount of stability in the environment to find optimal solutions. Biological evolution is good at finding optimal solutions within environments that either do not change or change at a slow rate in a consistent direction. Very rapid changes in the local environment can lead to wide-scale extinction, forcing evolution to start over.

Cultural evolution enables humans to adapt to rapid changes in environment within one generation as well as rapidly swinging directions of change. This makes cultural evolution far more flexible than biological evolution.

Despite all its advantages, it is important to keep in mind that cultural evolution also has some important disadvantages. Because human beings copy those that surround them, ideas and practices can evolve that are highly detrimental to humans, either as individuals or as societies. We will come back to this phenomenon later.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s