Cultural Evolution

First, a short glossary of terms I'm currently using. And then a quick guide to the existing literature (outside my my work) organized around four questions.


This is a short list of terms that I have come to treat as terms of art in thinking about cultural evolution. I have no idea how stable these terms and definition will prove to be.  Most of these terms are relatively recent, but my thinking about cultural evolution is broadly scattered across many posts and working papers and a handful of formal articles. Note also that this is not intended as anything approaching a complete list of terms for discussing cultural evolution. Rather, these are terms more or less specific to my usage.

Anchor: A kind of coordinator. Anchors are features of the physical world to which one becomes especially acclimated by virtue of living in a particular environment. Someone entering a strange environment may not have the anchors developed by those raised in that environment. Some anchors may also be targets.

Coordinator: The genetic element in cultural processes. Coordinators are physical traits of objects or processes in the public world. Everyone can see them. That is very important, as culture is shared and public. And thus its 'causal' basis must be public. As the name suggests, coordinators are the means by which people coordinate their minds: their thoughts and ideas, desires, intentions, and ultimately their actions.

The emic/etic distinction in linguistics and anthropology is a useful reference point. Phonetics is the study of language sounds. Phonemics is the study of those sound features, phonemes, that are active in a language.

The notion of a coordinator is, in effect, a generalization of the phoneme. A coordinator is a physical trait that is psychologically active/salient in cultural processes. [As an aside: I don't know just when this realization came to me – perhaps in the summer of 2010, when I was working on a piece for the National Humanities Center, but it does represent a turning point in my thinking about these issues.]

If you want to think in terms of computation, observe that computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Coordinators are data of that type. Coordinators supply the values to parameters of mental “software.”

Note that coordinators are not, in this sense, Dawkinsian replicators. Nor is it obvious to me that they form lineages. Finally, where the genetic material of biology exists everywhere in the same substrate – DNA molecules – coordinators can exist on any publicly accessible substrate, with most of them being either visible or audible.

There are four kinds of coordinators: anchors, couplers, designators, and targets.

Coupler: A kind of coordinator through which the temporal activities of two or more nervous systems are synchronized. When soldiers march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

Cover (paint), a verb : Objects, artifacts, actions and processes, that is, actors in the mesh, are said to be covered or to be painted with coordinators.

Culture, Human: Provides the means for individuals to coordinate their perceptual and motor activity in the absence of genetically encoded predispositions.
Cultural Being: A package or envelope of coordinators along with its trajectory in the minds of all who use it. As such, cultural beings are the object on which cultural selection operates. They are thus the phenotypic entities of culture. If participating in a cultural being was pleasant, then one would be motivated to do so again. Otherwise not.

The consequences of this definition are not obvious and will require careful consideration. I’ll give an example from music, my paradigm case, to give a sense of what I’ve got in mind.

In the case of a live music performance the cultural being would consist of the envelope of the sonic coordinators (that everyone hears) along with the neural trajectory in the mind of everyone who hears the performance, whether through direct performance or as members of an audience or perhaps even as not-particularly-attentive bystanders. This cultural being is thus limited in time, but somewhat physically dispersed (in the brains of all auditors).

If the performance is broadcast, those who hear the broadcast would be participating in the cultural being along with those directly present. I’ve not given it much thought, but in the case of a recorded performance, all those who hear the recording would also be participants. Thus the scope of the cultural being could grow over time.

In the case of a piece of music that as been notated, I am inclined to treat each performance of the score as a separate cultural being.

Designator: A kind of coordinator that is linked to a neural characterization of some phenomenon. To a first approximation, the content words of language (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are designators in this sense. More accurately it is the Saussurean signifier – the sound, gesture, or visual symbol – that is the designator. The Saussurean signified is the neural characterization.

Signifiers exist in the public domain where all can hear and see them; that is what allows them to function as designators. In contrast, signifieds exist in individual minds and, as the linguist William Croft points out, “getting speaker and hearer to converge on the same meaning is a problem, precisely because our thoughts cannot leave out heads” (Explaining Language Change, 2000, p. 111).

Envelope: A collection of coordinators that functions as a single cultural unit and serves as the material anchor for a cultural being. At the moment I’m using package as an alternative term for the same function.

Package: A collection of coordinators that functions as a single cultural unit and serves as the material anchor for a cultural being. At the moment I’m using envelope as an alternative term for the same function.

Phantasm: A phantasm is the mental act occasioned by a package or envelope of coordinators. Whether or not a package becomes active in a group depends on whether or not its phantasm is pleasant or not. A phantasm corresponds to the trajectory of a person’s brain considered as a dynamic system.

Paint, a verb: See Cover.

Reticulum or cultural reticulum: A network of persons and other cultural actors, whether animate or inanimate, that are linked together in a social group at the neural level. A reticulum in this sense is a Latourian actor-network. It is the environment in which cultural beings evolve and to which they must adapt. The actors in a reticulum are covered or painted with coordinators. Formerly mesh, which I may still use informally.

Substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. coordinators) are said to inhere.

Target: A kind of coordinator that can serve as the point of comparison for imitation, whether the creation of an artifact that imitates some model, or the imitation an actor’s behavior in a process of whatever kind. The imitation of an artifact or an activity will typically involve an ordered package or envelope of targets.

For example, assume that you want to make a stone ax head of the standard sort. Using an existing ax head as a model, you can treat its size and shape as targets against which one can judge progress in fabricating a new ax head. In this case a target is a parameter in a fabrication procedure that defines some aspect of the fabricated object.

In cybernetic terms, a target is a reference level for a control system. As such, perceptual targets are ubiquitous in animal behavior. But those targets are not specified by and given meaning by a matrix of cultural practices. They are not coordinators. But the target function is the psychological function on which evolution “bootstraps” complex culture into humans.

Trajectory: I’m using the term is it is used in dynamical systems theory, where it refers to the succession of states a system takes on in some interval. In this context, that system of interest is, of course, a human brain.

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[1] Take a look at this post, Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes, from May 26, 2010, at the note at the very end:
Bonus Points: Those familiar with anthropology may notice that I’ve define “meme” is a way that’s similar to the notion of “emic,” in contrast to “etic.” Is there a decent brief account of this distinction, or is it a hopeless mess?
I suspect that it was during the writing of that post the realization took hold and I tacked that note on at the end to acknowledge and mark that. The discussion on that post is worth reading. John Wilkins, philosopher of biology, offered this interesting remark:
The emic/etic distinction is rather like the extensional/intensional distinction in philosophy, basically the meaning (emic/intensional) of some cultural item, versus the external observation of its dynamics. Likewise the functional/morphological distinction in biology. I wonder if we can make a general categorical claim here?
That post is bundled together with nine other posts in a working paper: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2. You can download at PDF:

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Revised January 13, 2017. 
Revised August 11, 2017.
Revised November 19, 2019. 

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A quick guide to cultural evolution (for the humanist)

Much of the recent work on cultural evolution is empirical; researchers count things and see how they behave over time. This work requires minimal commitment to a specific theory or model of how cultural evolution works. That is perhaps wise, as there is no consensus on how to relate the relevant biological concepts to cultural entities and processes. These questions can help you organize and sort through the different conceptualizations.

1. What is the target/beneficiary of the evolutionary dynamic?

Is it a human or collection of humans that benefits directly or is it the cultural entity itself. “Directly” is the key word, as humans must ultimately benefit, otherwise cultural evolution is just a waste of biological resources. To the extent that there is a “mainstream” approach it is something called “gene-culture coevolution” or “dual inheritance theory.” In this approach humans are the direct beneficiaries of cultural success.

When Richard Dawkins proposed the meme as a cultural replicator in The Selfish Gene (1976) he proposed that the meme itself was the direct beneficiary of evolution. This allows for a potential conflict between cultural and biological evolution. A cultural trait like celibacy among the religious, for example, would seem to conflict with a biological ‘imperative’ to reproduce.

2. Replication (copying) or (re)construction.

Independently of the first question, how is the cultural entity transmitted from one person to another? Is it a process of imitation or reconstruction? Genes replicate through a process of copying, hence Dawkins’ choice of a term, “meme”, to suggest that. He sees genes as cultural replicators, and many researchers agree with this.

In 1996 Dan Sperber published Explaining Culture in which he argued that, no, cultural entities aren’t copied. Rather they’re reconstructed. Hence instances will differ from one another.

3. Is there a meaningful distinction comparable to the biological distinction between phenotype and genotype?

As far as I can tell, this distinction has little meaning for those focusing on empirical work. They count what they can count. And it doesn’t seem to have much purchase among adherents of gene-cultural coevolution or dual-inheritance theory. For these investigators we have populations of humans on the one hand, and cultural entities on the other. At this level of abstraction those cultural entities are all of the same kind.

The distinction comes into play when you take the position that cultural entities themselves are the direct beneficiaries of the evolutionary process. Dawkins sometimes talks of memes as though they are comparable to biological genes, implying that there are phenotypic entities as well. Other times, however, he talks of memes as viruses, in which case there is no phenotypic entity. As far as I can tell, Sperber doesn’t make this distinction either.

4. Are the genetic elements of culture inside people’s heads or are they in the external environment?

Dawkins was ambiguous on this point in The Selfish Gene. There is a strong tendency to conceptualize culture’s genetic entities, if you will, as being inside people’s heads. Most meme advocates do, and I believe that Sperber and his followers do as well. But one can take another position, that the culture’s genetic entities are in the external world in one form or another. That’s the position I take.

What to read?

I would recommend that humanists with no background in evolutionary thought start with Gary Taylor’s Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive The Test Of Time And Others Don't (Basic Books: 1996). It side-steps the theoretical mess around and about those four questions and discusses a lot of examples. I read it years ago and so don’t recall any specifics, but this publisher’s blurb seems reasonable:
[Taylor] argues that culture is not what was done, but what is remembered and that the social competition among different memories is as dynamic as the biological struggle for survival. Taylor builds his argument on a broad base of cultural achievements, from Michelangelo to Frankenstein, from Shakespeare to Casablanca, from Freud to Invisible Man. He spans the continents to draw upon Japanese literature, Native American history, ancient Greek philosophy, and modern American architecture.
What’s next? I would suggest: Laland, K. M. and G. R. Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior, (Oxford University Press: 2002). That’s the edition I read, but there is a second edition published in 2011. Laland and Brown cover not only cultural evolution in its various conceptual forms, but evolution and human behavior more generally, including sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology. As I recall, the title is apt, sense and nonsense.

Then you might want to look at a relatively short document (37 pp.) giving summaries and positions articulated in a workshop Daniel Dennett convened in 2010. It was held at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Participants: Dan Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Rob Boyd, Nicolas Cladière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, and Kim Sterelny. They run through various issues centered on the second question above. The document is published by the International Cognition & Culture Institute (founded by Dan Sperber) as Cultural Evolution Workshop (2010) at this link, You can download it as a PDF or iBook.

For gene-culture coevolution and/or dual inheritance I would recommend Alexander Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences (University of Chicago Press: 2011). This is only moderately technical.

If you want to further investigate memetics, you should start with Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976). It’s been reissued several times; any edition will do. Read the whole thing, not just the memetics chapter; that will give you a better understanding of what was on his mind when he posited the existence of memes. Once you’ve read that you should read this paper, Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976-1999, Perspectives on Science 2012, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104. Burman explains how the concept went from a relatively informal and ambiguous idea to the popular concept of a viral agent moving from mind to mind. Also look at Derek Gatherer, Why the ‘Thought Contagion’ Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics, Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Transmission, vol. 2, 1998, pp. 1-21, Gatherer argues against the idea that culture’s genetic elements are entities in the brain/mind.

Dan Sperber’s book – Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Wiley: 1996) – is relatively short and quite readable. He talks of an epidemiology of representations and adopts the term “attractor” from complex dynamics. A cultural attractor is a bit like a Platonic Ideal (though I suspect Sperber would reject the comparison); it is a form toward which cultural entities evolve according to factors of attraction. These factors might be some psychological preferences and/or environmental features that favor a cultural entity. This approach has come to be known as cultural attraction theory (CAT).

For a different take on the subject you can read Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York, Pantheon Books: 1999). Wright is working outside the nexus of the four questions I’ve listed above. He takes a long view of human history, from origins up to the present, and argues that we are moving toward ever more sophisticated modes of cooperative interaction. His title, NonZero, is a term from game theory. A zero sum game is one where one party’s gain is necessarily another party’s loss. A nonzero sum game, in contrast, is one where all parties can come out better than they were before entering into the interaction. Wright’s other point of departure is an empirical literature in anthropology and archaeology that dates mostly to the third quarter of the previous century. These scholars were interested in measuring the cultural complexity of existing, but also historical, societies and developed sophisticated statistical tools for doing so. Wright then argues that culture evolves toward more complex forms with more cooperative interactions between people.

As a bonus, you might want to look through the archives of the listserve associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, which was published from 1997 to 2005. It was an online journal, here: The list is archived here:

Finally, the Cultural Evolution Society was founded a couple of years ago:


  1. Fascinating, im so glad i found your work. Just last night i was trying to explain the problems with dawkins quasi-analogical construal of the meme. You make a point of specifying Saussurean signifier/signified, you likely also know the work of peirce, eco, deely, perhaps even soren brier and his cybersemiotic theory? Anyway, i have rarely come across anyone who shares my view of the saussurean signified as cognitive/neurological. Back to reading!