The evolution of cultural evolution


  • Joseph Henrich,

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Joseph Henrich received his Ph.D. in 1999 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. He was recently a fellow in the Society of Scholars at the University of Michigan and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has conducted ethnographic and experimental research among the Machiguenga of Peru and the Mapuche of southern Chile. His theoretical work has involved constructing formal models of the evolution of cultural learning capacities, cultural evolution, and culture-gene coevolution

  • Richard McElreath

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Richard McElreath received his Ph.D. in 2001 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is now Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California. He was recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. He conducts ongoing field work to investigate cultural microevolution among several ethnic groups in southwest Tanzania.


Humans are unique in their range of environments and in the nature and diversity of their behavioral adaptations. While a variety of local genetic adaptations exist within our species, it seems certain that the same basic genetic endowment produces arctic foraging, tropical horticulture, and desert pastoralism, a constellation that represents a greater range of subsistence behavior than the rest of the Primate Order combined. The behavioral adaptations that explain the immense success of our species are cultural in the sense that they are transmitted among individuals by social learning and have accumulated over generations. Understanding how and when such culturally evolved adaptations arise requires understanding of both the evolution of the psychological mechanisms that underlie human social learning and the evolutionary (population) dynamics of cultural systems.