The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

3
Why Culture Is Common, but
Cultural Evolution Is Rare

Cultural variation is common in nature. In creatures as diverse as rats, pigeons, chimpanzees, and octopuses, behavior is acquired through social learning. As a result, the presence of a particular behavior in a population makes it more likely that individuals in the next generation will acquire the same behavior, which, in turn, results in persistent differences between populations that are not due to genetic or environmental differences.

In sharp contrast, cumulative cultural evolution is rare. Most culture in nonhuman animals involves behaviors that individuals can, and do, learn on their own. There are only a few well-documented cases in which cultural change accumulates over many generations leading to the evolution of behaviors that no individual could invent—the only well-documented examples are song dialects in birds, perhaps some behaviors in chimpanzees, and, of course, many aspects of human behavior.

We believe that this situation presents an important evolutionary puzzle. The ability to accumulate socially learned behaviors over many generations has allowed humans to develop subtle, powerful technologies and to assemble complex institutions that permit us to live in larger, and more complex, societies than any other mammal species. These accumulated cultural traditions allow us to exploit a far wider range of habitats than any other animal, so that even with only hunting and gathering technology, humans became the most widespread mammal on earth. The fact that simple forms of cultural variation exist in a wide variety of organisms suggests that intelligence and social life alone are not sufficient to allow cumulative cultural evolution. Cumulative cultural change seems to require some special, derived, probably psychological, capacity. Thus, we have

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