Bridging cultural gaps: Promoting interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution

Within the blink of an eye on a geological timescale, humans advanced from using basic stone tools to studying the rocks on Mars; however, our exact evolutionary path and the relative importance of genetic and cultural evolution remain a mystery. Our cultural capacities—to create new ideas, to communicate and learn from one another, and to form vast social networks—together make us uniquely human, but the origins, the mechanisms, and the evolutionary impact of these capacities remain unknown.


Evolutionary biology is at an exciting juncture. Much important research has focused on the human genome as the key to unlocking knowledge about our evolutionary history. Recently, however, researchers have begun to recognize that understanding non-genetic inheritance, including culture, ecology, the microbiome, and regulation of gene expression, is fundamental to fully comprehending evolution. Exploration of the evolutionary effects of culture, learning, and language has generated new interdisciplinary studies of human evolution. Now more than ever it is important to focus on the dynamics of cultural inheritance at different temporal and spatial scales, to uncover the underlying mechanisms that drive these dynamics, and to shed light on their implications for our current theory of evolution as well as for our interpretation of and predictions about human behavior.


Many academic disciplines study human behavior and culture—anthropology, biology, psychology, computer science, ecology, economics, cognitive science, and archaeology, to name a few—often using different vocabularies. We believe that researchers in these different fields can learn from one another and thereby shed new light on human cultural evolution. To this end, we compiled and edited a theme issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. We aimed to combine perspectives from diverse fields to help elucidate the cultural forces affecting human evolution. This interdisciplinary collection of research on the roles that culture plays in shaping the course of human evolution, explores the mechanisms of cultural evolution from their cognitive underpinnings in individuals, through the behavioral ecology of learning from others, to the dynamics of transmission at the level of individuals and populations.


The sixteen new scientific papers in this issue originated at an international workshop entitled “New Perspectives in Cultural Evolution,” held at Stanford University in July 2016, supported by the John Templeton Foundation. This workshop brought together researchers from multiple fields from different universities. During their discussions, participants in the workshop proposed new ways to synthesize fields, tackled current controversies, and highlighted important unanswered questions, leading to the new research published in the theme issue.


Assembling researchers from different, traditionally disparate, fields made clear the challenges involved in studying cultural evolution in an integrative framework that crosses disciplinary boundaries: different fields typically study processes that act at different levels: the individual, the population or the species; they focus on different units of selection, such as groups, individuals, physical traits, or cultural traits; and they differ in assumptions about behavior and its drivers. Perhaps most challenging is the fact that many of these differences are seldom made explicit, and are often implicit in researchers’ thinking, a perfect recipe for misunderstanding. Coupled with differences in terminology and style, these differences pose challenges that become apparent in our collection of papers.


We believe, however, that the articles in the special issue make useful inroads into this complicated intellectual territory. In our own contributions to the issue we attempted to provide examples of this integrative process. The introduction to the issue summarizes a number of integrative studies and approaches that have already contributed significantly to our understanding of cultural evolution. The contribution by Oren Kolodny and Shimon Edelman combines a cognitive approach with the thought paradigm of evolutionary biology to tackle the question of the evolution of the capacity for language. In it, we bring together ideas and insights from anthropology, archaeology, and behavioral ecology to suggest an explicit scenario for the ecological context in which language may have evolved, and we build on current knowledge of neural anatomy and function to outline a computational level model of the underpinnings of this adaptation. The contribution by Nicole Creanza and colleagues compares features of a creole language to those of its likely source languages, synthesizing the study of linguistics with cultural evolution to (1) retrace the history of a human admixture event and (2) evaluate existing hypotheses about the dynamics of language formation. Finally, the contribution by Marc Feldman and Sohini Ramachandran brings cultural evolution to bear on modern genetic analysis. It highlights the potentially misleading interpretation of genome-wide association studies to assess the genetic underpinnings of behavioral traits, such as IQ, without considering potential processes of cultural transmission that may have profound effects on these traits. We hope this issue has sown the seeds for future studies along these lines. In compiling and editing this collection, we have benefited enormously from interacting with an outstanding and diverse group of scholars, whose research will, we hope, encourage others towards greater integrative and cross-disciplinary endeavors.





Access the theme issue here:
Bridging cultural gaps: interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution