Power in Cultural Evolution and the Spread of Prosocial Norms

Quarterly Review of Biology 93 (4):297–318 (2018)
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According to cultural evolutionary theory in the tradition of Boyd and Richerson, cultural evolution is driven by individuals' learning biases, natural selection, and random forces. Learning biases lead people to preferentially acquire cultural variants with certain contents or in certain contexts. Natural selection favors individuals or groups with fitness-promoting variants. Durham (1991) argued that Boyd and Richerson's approach is based on a "radical individualism" that fails to recognize that cultural variants are often "imposed" on people regardless of their individual decisions. Fracchia and Lewontin (2005) raised a similar challenge, suggesting that the success of a variant is often determined by the degree of power backing it. With power, a ruler can impose beliefs or practices on a whole population by diktat, rendering all of the forces represented in cultural evolutionary models irrelevant. It is argued here, based on work by Boehm (1999, 2012), that, from at least the time of the early Middle Paleolithic, human bands were controlled by powerful coalitions of the majority that deliberately guided the development of moral norms to promote the common good. Cultural evolutionary models of the evolution of morality have been based on false premises. However, Durham (1991) and Fracchia and Lewontin's (2005) challenge does not undermine cultural evolutionary modeling in nonmoral domains.

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Nathan Cofnas
Cambridge University


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