Cultural Evolutionary Theory: A Synthetic Theory for Fragmented Disciplines

Summary of: Cultural Evolutionary Theory: A Synthetic Theory for Fragmented Disciplines

The unique properties and probable origins of human cooperation are important problems linking cultural evolutionary theory and social psychology; the interplay of innate psychological factors, social institutions, individual preferences and population effects constitute promising fields for future interdisciplinary research.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Submitted for inclusion in Bridging Social Psychology, Paul Van Lange, ed.


  • Institutions depend on norms to overcome self-interest and promote contribution to public goods, and norms are learned through the kind of imitative self-learning called "conformist imitation." The role of conformity in encouraging and enforcing cooperation, and the links between the psychological factors and emergent social effects, is an area of cultural evolution inquiry that could be approached through social psychology research.
  • Over hundreds of thousands of years, co-evolutionary processes shaped "social instincts" such as altruistic punishment, anger at injustice, willingness to do favors for strangers, that conferred benefits on groups whose members exhibited these behaviors. Once early cooperative social institutions took root among populations with a sufficient number of cooperators, social selection (conferring benefits on those who obey rules and sanctioning or excluding rule-breakers), would have favored the spread of more prosocial individuals through the population over time. Concentrations of prosocial individuals then enabled the creation of cultural institutions that made larger group-level cooperation possible.
  • "Social psychologists have found in "minimal group" experiments that abstract ingroup categories can promote other-regarding behavior, at least in the absence of a dilemma of cooperation. We need much more information on real cultural boundaries, especially when dilemmas of cooperation exit."
  • "Cultural evolutionary theory has much to offer the field of social psychology. The models incorporate numerous cognitive and social "forces," and thus can readily link middle-range theories and empirical findings about the proximate mechanisms of human behavior into a multi-level and evolutionarily sophisticated understanding of the ultimate causes of such behavior. Two main routes of research will prove valuable. First, a promising way to promote dialog between theory and experiment is to develop micro-evolutionary experiments to understand the relative importance of individual and social learning within real and evolving populations of individuals. Second, although it is difficult to untangle the often long evolutionary histories of social institutions, the cross-cultural variability in social institutions provide natural experiments to explore how much these influence behaviors."

Social learning, which has been a research focus for social psychologists, also plays a role in cultural evolutionary theories about human cooperation. Because humans cooperate more readily with strangers than self-interest predicts, and because human cooperation is more complex than that among genetically related organisms like hives, strictly biological explanations such as kin selection and simple behaviors such as reciprocity are inadequate explanations. Cultural evolution theorists contend that genetic shaping of human social capabilities was adaptive during the climate swings of the late Pleistocene, when evidence of increasing human social activity emerged, but that cultural institutions began to leverage innate social capacities to make coordinated collective action possible – picking up the pace of social complexification about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agricultural. The strong analogy between cultural and genetic evolution proposed by cultural evolution theory is based on the cultural properties of transmission of information through speech, writing, and other media, which mimics the genetic transmission of traits through DNA reproduction, and the selection among social institutions for those that confer benefits upon the groups that build them, which could shape cooperation over time through group cultural selection. Transmission of cultural information from person to person and over time involves norms, imitation, and learning. Thus, convergent research by social psychologists and cultural evolutionists could shed light on questions about how individual-level behaviors lead to changes at the level of populations.