Cultural Variation in Time and Space:
The Case for a Populational
Theory of Culture
William H. Durham
In this chapter I outline a new way of thinking about culture that might help anthropology move beyond its current culture crisis. It is a way of thinking about culture that can be called “populational,” for it views cultures not as “complex wholes” or “coherent conceptual structures” but as changing temporary collections of socially transmitted information. I hope to show that there are specific utilities to this conception of culture, particularly for analyzing patterns of human thought and action and their changes over time and space.
Efforts to formulate a populational conception of culture are not entirely new. They date back at least to Edward Sapir’s “distributive” theory of culture (Rodseth 1998; see also Shore 1996: 209). What is new, relatively speaking, is recognition that a populational conception highlights three significant features of culture: its transmission, its internal variation, and its mechanisms of selective retention. These features draw attention to the potential for cultural systems to undergo bona fide evolutionary change—that is, to “descend with modification from ancestral forms,” as Darwin (1859) so succinctly put it in the case of species. In other words, a populational conception of culture emphasizes that cultures are evolutionary systems in their own right, and it paves the way for analyzing cultural change as a kind of evolutionary process. As I hope to show, this way of thinking about culture gives us valuable new tools for thinking about cultural variation in space and time. It is often called “coevolutionary theory” or a “coevolutionary