The experimental evolution of human culture: Flexibility, fidelity and environmental instability

Thomas J.H. Morgan, Jordan W. Suchow, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The past 2 Myr have seen both unprecedented environmental instability and the evolution of the human capacity for complex culture. This, along with the observation that cultural evolution occurs faster than genetic evolution, has led to the suggestion that culture is an adaptation to an unstable environment. We test this hypothesis by examining the ability of human social learning to respond to environmental changes. We do this by inserting human participants (n = 4800) into evolutionary simulations with a changing environment while varying the social information available to individuals across five conditions. We find that human social learning shows some signs of adaptation to environmental instability, including critical social learning, the adoption of up-and-coming traits and, unexpectedly, contrariness. However, these are insufficient to avoid significant fitness declines when the environment changes, and many individuals are highly conformist, which exacerbates the fitness effects of environmental change. We conclude that human social learning reflects a compromise between the competing needs for flexibility to accommodate environmental change and fidelity to accurately transmit valuable cultural information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20221614
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1986
StatePublished - Nov 9 2022


  • cognition
  • conformist transmission
  • cultural evolution
  • evolution
  • experimental evolution
  • social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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