Does Biology Constrain Culture?



Most social scientists would agree that the capacity for human culture was probably fashioned by natural selection, but they disagree about the implications of this supposition. Some believe that natural selection imposes important constraints on the ways in which culture can vary, while others believe that any such constraints must be negligible. This article employs a “thought experiment” to demonstrate that neither of these positions can be justified by appeal to general properties of culture or of evolution. Natural selection can produce mechanisms of cultural transmission that are neither adaptive nor consistent with the predictions of acultural evolutionary models (those ignoring cultural evolution). On the other hand, natural selection can also produce mechanisms of cultural transmission that are highly consistent with acultural models. Thus, neither side of the sociobiology debate is justified in dismissing the arguments of the other. Natural selection may impose significant constraints on some human behaviors, but negligible constraints on others. Models of simultaneous genetic/cultural evolution will be useful in identifying domains in which acultural evolutionary models are, and are not, likely to be useful.