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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'.
Author(s): Nettle D
Publication type: Article
Publication status: Published
Journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences
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
PubMed id: 32146878
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