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Cultural Evolution

How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

Cultural Evolution

How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

Charles Darwin changed the course of scientific thinking by showing how evolution accounts for the stunning diversity and biological complexity of life on earth. Recently, there has also been increased interest in the social sciences in how Darwinian theory can explain human culture.
Covering a wide range of topics, including fads, public policy, the spread of religion, and herd behavior in markets, Alex Mesoudi shows that human culture is itself an evolutionary process that exhibits the key Darwinian mechanisms of variation, competition, and inheritance. This cross-disciplinary volume focuses on the ways cultural phenomena can be studied scientifically—from theoretical modeling to lab experiments, archaeological fieldwork to ethnographic studies—and shows how apparently disparate methods can complement one another to the mutual benefit of the various social science disciplines. Along the way, the book reveals how new insights arise from looking at culture from an evolutionary angle. Cultural Evolution provides a thought-provoking argument that Darwinian evolutionary theory can both unify different branches of inquiry and enhance understanding of human behavior.

280 pages | 11 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Anthropology: Physical Anthropology

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion

Psychology: Social Psychology


“While much of modern behavioral and social science treats individuals as autonomous agents, it is absolutely clear that the way we think and act is enormously influenced by the culture in which we live. It also is clear that the major elements of modern culture—science, technology, law, music, and religion—have evolved over time in a quite concrete sense of the term. Mesoudi makes these arguments very well and his book is a very good read.”

Richard R. Nelson, Columbia University

 “With an engaging, well-informed and clearly written discussion of the evolution of culture, Cultural Evolution is also vital reading for those wishing to understand how the social sciences can and must evolve.”—Geoffrey M. Hodgson, University of Hertfordshire

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, University of Hertfordshire

 “For just over a quarter century, scattered groups of renegade evolutionary social scientists have been quietly hammering away in the remote corners of anthropology, archaeology, biology, psychology, and economics to forge a fully Darwinian approach to culture. In elegantly assembling and synthesizing these disparate and often highly technical efforts, Mesoudi has turned on the lights and put out the welcome mat: the interdisciplinary science of culture for the twenty-first century is open for business.”—Joseph Henrich, University of British Columbia


Joseph Henrich, University of British Columbia

“Alex Mesoudi has written a valuable book. It offers a broad and accessible overview of modern cultural evolutionary theory, while containing enough by way of provocation and elaboration to keep specialists interested. In addition to providing introductory discussions of such well-trodden topics as the general Darwinian nature of cultural change and the role of formal models in exploring it, Mesoudi also pays welcome attention to empirical and experimental work on cultural evolution and to less mature fields such as the evolutionary study of economics. . . . In sum, the book elegantly encapsulates the state of the art in what is shown to be a mature field of enquiry.”

Biology and Philosophy

“An accessible, authoritative survey of this burgeoning field. Mesoudi provides crystal-clear conceptual explanations of the mathematical models that underpin much of the work on cultural evolution and skillfully links this theory to a range of empirical work. However, this is more than just an explanatory text. It also takes on the big and often controversial issues surrounding the relationships between genetic and cultural evolution and between micro- and macro-level explanations in the social sciences. . . . [The book] ends with a manifesto. Disciplines in the human sciences are curiously insular, with scholars in different disciplines continuing to research and teach undergraduates as if the findings of other disciplines did not matter. Obviously this is not a satisfactory situation. Mesoudi forcefully argues that the theory of cultural evolution is the solution to this problem.”

Robert Boyd | Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Table of Contents


1 A Cultural Species
2 Cultural Evolution
3 Cultural Microevolution
4 Cultural Macroevolution I: Archaeology and Anthropology
5 Cultural Macroevolution II: Language and History
6 Evolutionary Experiments: Cultural Evolution in the Lab
7 Evolutionary Ethnography: Cultural Evolution in the Field
8 Evolutionary Economics: Cultural Evolution in the Marketplace
9 Culture in Nonhuman Species
10 Toward an Evolutionary Synthesis for the Social Sciences

Works Cited

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