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J Evol Biol. 2014 Feb;27(2):231-41. doi: 10.1111/jeb.12296. Epub 2013 Dec 16.

Cultural transmission and the evolution of human behaviour: a general approach based on the Price equation.

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Department of Zoology & Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


Transmitted culture can be viewed as an inheritance system somewhat independent of genes that is subject to processes of descent with modification in its own right. Although many authors have conceptualized cultural change as a Darwinian process, there is no generally agreed formal framework for defining key concepts such as natural selection, fitness, relatedness and altruism for the cultural case. Here, we present and explore such a framework using the Price equation. Assuming an isolated, independently measurable culturally transmitted trait, we show that cultural natural selection maximizes cultural fitness, a distinct quantity from genetic fitness, and also that cultural relatedness and cultural altruism are not reducible to or necessarily related to their genetic counterparts. We show that antagonistic coevolution will occur between genes and culture whenever cultural fitness is not perfectly aligned with genetic fitness, as genetic selection will shape psychological mechanisms to avoid susceptibility to cultural traits that bear a genetic fitness cost. We discuss the difficulties with conceptualizing cultural change using the framework of evolutionary theory, the degree to which cultural evolution is autonomous from genetic evolution, and the extent to which cultural change should be seen as a Darwinian process. We argue that the nonselection components of evolutionary change are much more important for culture than for genes, and that this and other important differences from the genetic case mean that different approaches and emphases are needed for cultural than genetic processes.


Price equation; cultural evolution; cultural fitness; cultural group selection; dual-inheritance theory; human behavioural ecology; kin selection

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