Boyd and Richerson’s The Origin and Evolution of Cultures


Jason Collins


November 5, 2012

When I asked for suggestions for my evolutionary biology and economics reading list earlier this year, Boyd and Richerson’s The Origin and Evolution of Cultures was one of the most recommended. Their exploration of cultural evolution has many elements that are relevant to economics, including the development of institutional frameworks, the evolution of cooperation and the transmission of technology.

The book comprises 20 papers (published between 1987 and 2003) that are grouped into five thematic groups: the evolution of social learning; ethnic groups and markers; human cooperation, reciprocity and group selection; archaeology and culture history; and links to other disciplines. Each chapter was a stand-alone paper, so rather than going into any of them in further detail, I will save that for some later posts and give some more general observations here.

First, Boyd and Richerson are clear in arguing that “culture” is a distinct feature from “environment”, and that it should be examined through an evolutionary lens:

[C]ultural variation is transmitted from individual to individual, it is subject to population dynamic processes analogous to those that effect genetic variation and quite unlike the processes that govern other environmental effects. Combining cultural and environmental effects into a single category conceals these important differences.

Having been sceptical before reading the book, this is one issue on which I am a convert. I am still not convinced that it is always (or often) possible to identify practically which cultural trait is subject to selection or to differentiate it from the environment, but drawing this distinction led to some interesting and parsimonious models. Further, an evolving cultural trait may be the environment for another cultural trait.

Their exploration of cultural evolution often contains a genetic element, usually in the context of “gene-culture coevolution”. For example, they describe a process whereby cultural institutions might result in people with certain genetic predispositions beings weeded out.

Mechanisms by which cultural institutions might exert forces tugging in this direction are not far to seek. People are likely to discriminate against genotypes that are incapable of conforming to cultural norms (Richerson and Boyd, 1989; Laland, Kumm, and Feldman, 1995). People who cannot control their self-serving aggression ended up exiled or executed in small-scale societies and imprisoned in contemporary ones. People whose social skills embarrass their families will have a hard time attracting mates. Of course, selfish and nepotistic impulses were never entirely suppressed; our genetically transmitted evolved psychology shapes human cultures, and, as a result, cultural adaptations often still serve the ancient imperatives of inclusive genetic fitness. However, cultural evolution also creates new selective environments that build cultural imperatives into our genes.

However, Boyd and Richerson’s exploration of gene-culture coevolution does not usually extend to developing models with where genes and culture simultaneously evolve. At times this is problematic, particularly where they incorporate cultural group selection into the picture, as it can be difficult to understand how the process would actually work from the often loose verbal descriptions. Conversely, a model incorporating these multiple evolving elements would lose the clarity and simplicity that allows most of the models in the book to be useful.

The indeterminate nature of the culture-environment distinction I alluded to above is also highlighted by this gene-culture evolution quote. Cultural evolution creates new selective environments. While a cultural trait is evolving, it is effectively creating an environment in which other cultural traits or genes evolve. This is similar to the idea that genes effectively create the environment in which other genes evolve, whether those other genes be in the same individual or in other individuals and species.

Boyd and Richerson’s work shares some similarity with that of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, particularly in their approach to model development. Simulations are used as illustrations, the focus is more on demonstrating ideas than providing hard proofs, and agent based models are a common tool.  However, Boyd and Richerson have a stronger sense than Bowles and Gintis of the limitations of their models, and generally recognise their illustrative and not determinative nature. Bowles and Gintis have a habit of making a model and arguing that, since a certain feature didn’t work in their model (such as the evolution of cooperation by reciprocal altruism), their model is evidence that it can’t work at all. The problem with this approach is that the model only examines such a small subspace of the possibilities. Boyd and Richerson tend to be more constrained in their conclusions, although not always so.

One of the groups of papers focuses on group selection. I am more open to analysing the transmission of cultural traits through the lens of group selection (or multilevel selection) than I am for the transmission of genes, largely because cultural group selection is not necessarily undermined by migration between groups in the same way as genetic group selection. Boyd and Richerson note this when they state:

[S]ocial extinction does not mean physical elimination of the entire group. Quite the contrary, most people survive defeat but flee as refugees to other groups, into which they are incorporated. This sort of extinction cannot support genetic group selection because so many of the defeated survive and because they would tend to carry their unsuccessful genes into successful groups, rapidly running down variation between groups. However, the effects of conformist cultural transmission combined with moralistic punishment makes between-group cultural variation much less subject to erosion by migration and within-group success of uncooperative strategies than is true in the case of acultural organisms.

However, I am still not convinced that the cultural group selection approach provides the clearest method of analysis. I’ll save my specific issues with their approach in a separate post.

My favourite chapter of the book was the least theoretical. Boyd and Richerson (with Joseph Soltis) asked whether observed rates of group extinction could be sufficient for group selection to drive rapid cultural evolution. Based on an examination of hunter-gather tribe extinction rates, they concluded that group selection could not be responsible. It was refreshing to see some empirical analysis applied to this issue. For all the noise around group selection (both genetic and cultural), it is rare that the debates are accompanied by increasingly available data.

*My later post with my thoughts on their approach to group selection can be found here.