Cultural evolution (lesson plan)
In this lesson students explore the generalizability and transferability of foundational evolutionary concepts by looking at cultural change as evolutionary change, and by comparing mechanisms of evolution across biological and cultural evolution. They explore some human traits that enable the unique cultural evolution observable in our species.
- Teaching material type Analogy mapping, Full lesson plan
- Subject Areas Biology, History, Human Evolution, Social Studies
- Learning Goals Conceptual Thinking, Evolutionary Thinking, Interdisciplinary Thinking
- Suitable Grade Levels 9-12, Undergraduate
- Concepts Cognition, Cultural evolution, Culture, Learning, Natural selection, Perception, Teaching, Technology, Thinking
- Content Anchors Ancient Ancestors, Our Mind, Sustainable Development Goals
Author: Susan Hanisch
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- Evolutionary theory in the 21st century has been embraced, albeit with varying degrees of controversy and consensus, across wide ranging disciplines. From biology and anthropology, to medicine, psychology, economics, sustainability science, computer science, and many more, core concepts of heritable variation and selection have been utilized by scientists across academia to understand change in the natural and social world. This article aims to provide evolution educators with a short review of current discourse in evolution science and a conceptual clarification of core concepts in evolutionary theory, in the service of promoting deeper and transferable understanding of these concepts in evolution education.
- Ever since The Origin of Species, but increasingly in recent years, parallels and analogies have been drawn between biological and cultural evolution, and methods, concepts, and theories that have been developed in evolutionary biology have been used to explain aspects of human cultural change. Many others, however, while accepting the need for some form of evolutionary approach to culture, have consistently emphasized the differences between biological and cultural evolution, with these differences often presented as being problematic for existing evolutionary analyses of culture. Here I argue that this is largely a false debate, given that its protagonists agree on the majority of key points. Apparent disagreement may stem partly from simple differences in emphasis, and partly from the diversity of both biological and cultural evolutionary processes.
- We suggest that human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties, and argue that the structure of a science of cultural evolution should share fundamental features with the structure of the science of biological evolution. This latter claim is tested by outlining the methods and approaches employed by the principal subdisciplines of evolutionary biology and assessing whether there is an existing or potential corresponding approach to the study of cultural evolution. Existing approaches within anthropology and archaeology demonstrate a good match with the macroevolutionary methods of systematics, paleobiology, and biogeography, whereas mathematical models derived from population genetics have been successfully developed to study cultural microevolution. Much potential exists for experimental simulations and field studies of cultural microevolution, where there are opportunities to borrow further methods and hypotheses from biology. Potential also exists for the cultural equivalent of molecular genetics in “social cognitive neuroscience,” although many fundamental issues have yet to be resolved. It is argued that studying culture within a unifying evolutionary framework has the potential to integrate a number of separate disciplines within the social sciences.
- Throughout the literature on Cultural Evolutionary Theory (CET) attention is drawn to the existence and significance of an analogy between biological phenomena and socio-cultural phenomena (the “biology-culture analogy”). Mesoudi (2017) seems to argue that it is the accuracy of the analogy, and the magnitude of accurate instances of this analogy at work, which provides warrant for an evolutionary approach to the study of socio-cultural phenomena, and, thus, for CET. An implication of this is that if there is evidence to suggest that the analogy is not accurate, or that there aren’t many cases where it is accurate, this would constitute evidence to reject an evolutionary approach to the study of socio-cultural phenomena. As such, opponents of CET raise objections highlighting the weakness of the biology-culture analogy. These objections, in turn, have standard replies in the literature that serve to reinforce the realism of the biology-culture analogy. Curiously, this situation would appear to support a position in the philosophy of social science called “Ontology Matters” (Lauer 2019). It is the view that social ontology can contribute to the empirical success of the social sciences (among which I include CET) by providing an accurate account of what there is in the domain of the social world which can be used to generate better explanations and/or predictions of social phenomena. If ontology matters, in this sense, perhaps this can help to clarify and resolve the dispute regarding the realism of the biology-culture analogy. In turn, perhaps this can help us determine what warrant there is for CET. However, I think this situation is indicative of severe confusion and misunderstanding as to the significance of the biology-culture analogy. This confusion is caused by inattention to two things. First, the useful distinction between it’s methodological, epistemological, and ontological significance. Second, the abstract (ontologically minimalist) nature of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. By drawing attention to these two things, I hope to take the sting out of, and deflate the significance of, disputes regarding the accuracy of the analogy, for both proponents and opponents of CET, as well as to bring into contact a classical dispute in the philosophy of social science with some relevant aspects of theoretical biology.