Toggle Main Menu Toggle Search

Open Access padlockePrints

Selection, adaptation, inheritance and design in human culture: the view from the Price equation

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Daniel Nettle



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


For decades, parts of the literature on human culture have been gripped by an analogy: culture changes in a way that is substantially isomorphic to genetic evolution. This leads to a number of sub-claims: that design-like properties in cultural traditions should be explained in a parallel way to the design-like features of organisms, namely with reference to selection; that culture is a system of inheritance; and that cultural evolutionary processes can produce adaptation in the genetic sense. The Price equation provides a minimal description of any evolutionary system, and a method for identifying the action of selection. As such, it helps clarify some of these claims about culture conceptually. Looking closely through the lens of the Price equation, the differences between genes and culture come into sharp relief. Culture is only a system of inheritance metaphorically, or as an idealization, and the idealization may lead us to overlook causally important features of how cultural influence works. Design-like properties in cultural systems may owe more to transmission biases than to cultural selection. Where culture enhances genetic fitness, it is ambiguous whether what is doing the work is cultural transmission, or just the genetically evolved properties of the mind. I conclude that there are costs to trying to press culture into a template based on Darwinian evolution, even if one broadens the definition of 'Darwinian'. This article is part of the theme issue 'Fifty years of the Price equation'.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Nettle D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences

Year: 2020

Volume: 375

Issue: 1797

Online publication date: 09/03/2020

Acceptance date: 24/10/2019

Date deposited: 02/04/2020

ISSN (print): 0962-8436

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2970

Publisher: The Royal Society


DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0358

PubMed id: 32146878


Altmetrics provided by Altmetric