At a basic level, cultural evolution is just change over time in a society’s culture. By ‘culture’ we mean all the socially learned information that passes from one generation to the next non-genetically, such as knowledge, attitudes, norms, customs, languages, institutions, beliefs and skills.

However, cultural evolution involves studying cultural change through an evolutionary lens. Cultural evolution researchers typically study one or both of the following:

How culture evolved

We are interested in understanding how the capacity for culture evolved in our and other species. This can be done by comparing the cultural capacities of different species, such as their capacities for social learning, imitation, language or theory of mind, to try to understand how and why those capacities evolved. It also involves creating mathematical or computer models of these evolutionary processes, comparing cultures across contemporary human societies, and looking at our species’ past through the archaeological record.

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A juvenile chimpanzee watches its mother using a stone to crack open nuts, illustrating social learning and culture in a non-human species. Credit: Primate Research Institute, Kyoto / Tetsuro Matsuzawa.

How culture evolves

Once the capacities for culture have evolved, culture itself can be said to form an evolutionary system, one that acts in parallel to genetic evolution. Humans and other cultural species are therefore the joint product of our genes and our culture (often called ‘gene-culture coevolution’). To say that culture evolves implies that cultural change exhibits key similarities to genetic evolution – and also key differences. This means that we can borrow certain concepts, tools and methods from biology that are used to study genetic evolution and adapt them to study cultural change.

Find out more

To learn more about cultural evolution, both the phenomenon and the field of study, check out the other pages in the Discover Cultural Evolution section of our website. Find out exactly what we mean by the concept of ‘cultural evolution’, explore the human story, learn about the history of the field of cultural evolution, and go deeper with online talks, tutorials, courses and book recommendations.