Video: Alex Mesoudi, The Experimental Study of Human Cultural Evolution
Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College
(Download video, 580 MB)
Abstract: A growing body of theory has begun to analyse human culture – the body of beliefs, skills, knowledge, customs, attitudes and norms that is transmitted from individual to individual via social learning – as a Darwinian evolutionary process. Just as the biological evolution of species can be characterised as a Darwinian process of variation, selection and inheritance, so too culture exhibits these basic Darwinian properties. I will present the results of a series of experiments that have simulated cultural evolution in the lab using methods from social psychology. One set of studies using the “transmission chain method” have identified a bias in cultural evolution for information concerning social interactions over non-social interactions, as predicted by the “social brain” theory of human intelligence. Another set of studies have simulated the cultural evolution of prehistoric arrowhead designs, testing hypotheses that different patterns of arrowhead variation are caused by different ways in which arrowhead designs were transmitted between prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
Alex Mesoudi is Reader of Psychology at Queen Mary College, University of London. He is a psychologist who studies cultural evolution as a Darwinian evolutionary process, similar in key respects to the evolution of biological species. Culture can consequently be studied using similar methods, concepts and tools that biologists use to study biological (gene-based) evolution. My own research uses a combination of laboratory experiments and theoretical models to simulate the processes of cultural evolution, with the aim of identifying the small-scale, individual-level cultural processes that generate the patterns and trends that are observed in human culture.