Evolutionary Cultural Psychology

Researchers have created verbal and mathematical theoretical models to help us comprehend the intricate patterns of transmission and evolution that can be seen in human cultural traits—behaviors, concepts, and technologies that can be picked up from other people. Because cultural development has many similarities and distinct differences from genetic evolution, many of the early quantitative models of cultural evolution were developed from ideas already present in theoretical population genetics.

Additionally, interactions between cultural and genetic evolution can affect transmission and selection. In addition to simply cultural development, this interplay necessitates theoretical analyses of gene-culture coevolution and dual inheritance. In addition, research in demography, human ecology, and many other fields naturally incorporate the cultural evolutionary paradigm.

Relationship between Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology

An organism's phenotype is the outcome of the interaction between genotype and environmental (epigenetic) events during development. Because of this, cross-cultural psychology cannot achieve its objective of identifying similarities and differences in how people behave across cultures without a concept of development. No psychological function can be understood without considering development (the genetic method) and social contexts (the sociological approach).

However, without specifying such boundaries, a developmental notion that operates with variance staying within the biologically determined bounds, is useless. Evolutionary theory offers assumptions regarding these limitations.

Let us start by thinking about cultural norms. The topic of cultural universals is not inconsequential or merely a counterargument to cultural relativism; instead, it is the opposite side of the relativistic coin. How can certain things be the same everywhere when different people naturally desire to create different cultures? In other words, the claim that human behavioral flexibility is "cultural" loses all relevance in the absence of (even implicit) assumptions about a shared human "nature."

There are some startling parallels amongst cultures, which allude to shared traits of the human psyche with biological roots. One relates to sex differences (for instance, universal mating tactics), another to the propensity to learn the language, and the third, to which we now turn, relates to early infancy upbringing habits.

The Roles of Transmission and Innovation in Cultural Evolution

Cultural traits, like genes, can be more or less adaptive depending on the environment and can propagate by that. The following query is intriguing: Which environmental patterns would favor the genetic transmission if specific behavior could be either innate (i.e., genetically determined) or culturally acquired (and thus potentially responsive to the environment)?

Models suggest that environments with spatial variation will favor cultural transmission while only extremely stable environments would favor behavior determined by genes. Genes, cultural features, and surroundings should all be considered together since "correlations between biological relatives are expected even if there is no genetic variation at all," according to one study.

Evoked Culture

Even though evoked and transmitted culture is theoretically separate processes, doing so is notoriously challenging. Gangestad used their framework to compare variations in gender inequality to variations in parasite prevalence to explain mate preferences. It is not entirely apparent whether gender inequality is better understood as the result of evocation or transmission, even though parasite prevalence is unquestionably an evoked variable (environmental feature). There are several conflicting causes for gender inequality among cultures in the first place, as Gangestad go into considerable length.

Gender roles diverge when men produce more surplus calories than women (often through hunting). Due to evocation (environmental conditions) or transmission (the socialization and training of boys and girls in society), men and women may engage in different activities. It is most likely both. While evocation does account for cultural heterogeneity in partner choices, Gangestad's research does not allow for a straightforward test of whether transmission also plays a role in this variance.

Transmitted Culture

Transmission culture is another type of phenomenon that needs a different kind of explanation. Transferred culture refers to representations or ideas that begin in one mind and spread to other minds through observation or contact. The hula hoop craze, changes in dress style or fashion, beliefs in alien entities, and jokes passed down from generation to generation are all transmitted cultures. These events necessitate the existence of specific inference mechanisms in the "recipients" who reproduce the mental representations.

From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, the existence of specialized inference processes in accounting for inherited culture is critical. Because "input" from other members of one's social group is boundless, a theoretically infinite number of ideas compete for humans' limited attention spans. The receivers' evolved psychological systems must sift through this bombardment of thoughts, selecting just a small selection for psychological reconstruction. Individuals' selective adoption and internal reconstruction of a subset is based on a foundation of developed psychological mechanisms. Consequently, transmitted culture, like evoked culture, is built on an evolved set of psychological mechanisms.

We do not know these mechanisms yet but we know some of their characteristics. They must contain mechanisms for selectively attending to specific thoughts while ignoring others, selectively recording some in memory while forgetting others, and selectively communicating some while failing to transmit others. These processes, it is assumed, are substantially saturated with material that determines relevance to the person relevance on dimensions that would have influenced survival and reproduction in ancestral contexts.

Evoked and Transmitted Cultural Variation

Most social scientists define culture as transmitted or epidemiological. This refers to the possibility that genetically similar individuals living in comparable settings may hold remarkably different ideas and practices, which they pick up from community members. Culture develops when information is passed down socially, not genetically, through mimicry, imitation, and teaching, as well as a result of communicative processes like rumors, dialogues, and story-telling. People receive and send large volumes of information with the help of other individuals, which profoundly changes their behavior.

Since the cultural transmission is so widespread and fast accumulative in humans, many evolutionary scientists view it as a dual system of heredity unique to our species interacting with genetic inheritance. Richerson and Boyd even went so far as to claim that kids are naturally equipped to pick up on their social group's ideas and customs quickly because transmitted culture is an adaptation.

In the ecologically unstable ancestral setting where human psychology first emerged, a learning bias that adopts the most typical behaviors of the in-group may have been selected. Whether or not transmitted culture is best viewed as a naturally selected adaptation, evolutionary psychology-based psychological research can shed light on this potent but little-understood cultural engine. This can be summarized as −

  • Culture is not an autonomous causal agent competing with biology for explanatory power.

  • Cultural diversities-local within-group similarities and between-group differences-are phenomena to be explained but do not explain cultural phenomena in and of themselves.

  • Cultural phenomena can be usefully classified into types, such as evoked and transmitted cultures.

  • Evoked culture explanations require a foundation of evolved psychological mechanisms, without which differently activated cultural diversity cannot occur.

  • Transmitted culture is also based on evolved psychological mechanisms that influence which ideas are attended to, encoded, retrieved from memory, and transmitted to other individuals.

As Pete Richardson and Rob Boyd conclude, nothing in culture makes sense until it is viewed through evolution.


Because behavioral plasticity in and of itself says nothing, it is ineffective to divide biological and cultural influences on human behavior and development. There is no "pure" genetic or "pure" environmental cause of behavior, and there can never be. It is possible to alter behavior but to do so, and we must first describe the functional relationships between behavior and environment, founded on the evolutionary principle of natural selection.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about evolutionary biology, the scientific and political implications of the evolutionary theory suggest that while behavioral flexibility can be evolutionarily highly adaptable, change is possible, and intervention can be beneficial.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started