Darwinian Models of Culture: Toward Replacing the Nature/Nurture Dichotomy

Peter J. Richersont, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Recent theoretical work on the processes of cultural evolution helps to provide a clearer picture of the relationship between genetic and cultural influences on human behavior. The theory uses methods borrowed from evolutionary biology to study the unique properties of culture, but in a framework that permits a direct analysis of how genes and culture interact. The different scholars contributing to this program of research have rather different hypotheses regarding the relative importance of the processes that operate to cause cultural evolution. Some human sociobiologists propose that cultural evolution is very strongly constrained by the decision-making of individuals. If so, human behavior can in principle be predicted rather directly from considerations of genetic fitness maximization. We are more impressed by the dynamic complexities introduced by a second system of inheritance. The difference between these hypotheses turns on the extent to which information is costly to acquire. When it is costly and difficult to make individual judgments about the adaptiveness of cultural traits, selection on genes can favor largely blind imitation. This system reduces information costs and allows human populations to maintain a large reservoir of adaptive culture, but at a different kind of cost. Blindly imitated traits are themselves subject to natural selection, but it can be the case that genetic and cultural fitness conflict. All of these hypotheses result in an intertwining of genes and culture in reciprocal cause-and-effect processes that are poorly captured by the traditional nature/nurture dichotomy. Darwinian theory offers new concepts and models with which to investigate the joint influences of genes and culture on human behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-57
Number of pages15
JournalWorld Futures
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jun 1 1992
Externally publishedYes


  • Darwinian theory
  • cultural evolution
  • nature/nurture debate
  • sociobiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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