Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution

Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

191 Scopus citations


Recent debates about memetics have revealed some widespread misunderstandings about Darwinian approaches to cultural evolution. Drawing from these debates, this paper disputes five common claims: (1) mental representations are rarely discrete, and therefore models that assume discrete, gene-like particles (i.e., replicators) are useless; (2) replicators are necessary for cumulative, adaptive evolution; (3) content-dependent psychological biases are the only important processes that affect the spread of cultural representations; (4) the "cultural fitness" of a mental representation can be inferred from its successful transmission; and (5) selective forces only matter if the sources of variation are random. We close by sketching the outlines of a unified evolutionary science of culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-137
Number of pages19
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural transmission
  • Dual inheritance theory
  • Epidemiology of representations
  • Memes
  • Replicators

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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