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Towards a unified science of cultural evolution


Alex Mesoudi a1a2a3 , Andrew Whiten a4 and Kevin N. Laland a5
a1 Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, Scotland, United Kingdom
a2 Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri – Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211, Canada
a3 W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2, Canada. MesoudiA@missouri.edu http://www.missouri.edu/~mesoudia/">www.missouri.edu/~mesoudia/
a4 Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, Scotland, United Kingdom. aw2@st-and.ac.uk www.st-and.ac.uk/~aw2/
a5 Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9TS, Scotland, United Kingdom. knl1@st-and.ac.uk www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~seal

Article author query
mesoudi a   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
whiten a   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
laland kn   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 

Abstract

We suggest that human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties, and argue that the structure of a science of cultural evolution should share fundamental features with the structure of the science of biological evolution. This latter claim is tested by outlining the methods and approaches employed by the principal subdisciplines of evolutionary biology and assessing whether there is an existing or potential corresponding approach to the study of cultural evolution. Existing approaches within anthropology and archaeology demonstrate a good match with the macroevolutionary methods of systematics, paleobiology, and biogeography, whereas mathematical models derived from population genetics have been successfully developed to study cultural microevolution. Much potential exists for experimental simulations and field studies of cultural microevolution, where there are opportunities to borrow further methods and hypotheses from biology. Potential also exists for the cultural equivalent of molecular genetics in “social cognitive neuroscience,” although many fundamental issues have yet to be resolved. It is argued that studying culture within a unifying evolutionary framework has the potential to integrate a number of separate disciplines within the social sciences.

(Published Online November 9 2006)


Key Words: cultural anthropology; cultural evolution; cultural transmission; culture; evolution; evolutionary archaeology; evolutionary biology; gene-culture coevolution; memes; social learning..


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