The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

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

15
How Microevolutionary
Processes Give Rise
to History

Over the last decade a number of authors, including ourselves, have attempted to understand human cultural variation using Darwinian methods. This work is unified by the idea that culture is a system of inheritance: individuals vary in their skills, habits, beliefs, values, and attitudes, and these variations are transmitted to others through time by teaching, imitation, and other forms of social learning. To understand cultural change, we must account for the microevolutionary processes that increase the numbers of some cultural variants and reduce the numbers of others.

Social scientists have made a number of objections to this approach to understanding cultural change. Among these is the idea that culture can only be explained historically. Because the history of any given human society is a sequence of unique and contingent events, explanations of human social life, it is argued, are necessarily interpretive and particularistic. Present phenomena are best explained mainly in terms of past contingencies, not ahistorical adaptive processes that would erase the trace of history. Like other scientific (rather than historical) explanations of human cultures, the argument goes, Darwinian models cannot account for the lack of correlation of environmental and cultural variation, nor the long-term trends in cultural change.

In this chapter, we defend the Darwinian theories of cultural change against this objection by suggesting that several cultural evolutionary processes can give rise to divergent evolutionary developments, secular trends, and other features that can generate unique historical sequences for particular societies. We also argue that Darwinian theory offers useful tools for those interested in understanding the evolution of particular societies. Essentially similar processes act in the case of organic evolution. Darwinian theory is both scientific and historical.

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