We tend to think of culture and biology as two entirely separate things. We talk about man-made things and natural things as if there’s no overlap. But what the nascent field of cultural evolution tells us is that the mechanism whereby ideas come to spread throughout the human population is exactly the same as the mechanism whereby genes spread throughout a population.
Take a new recipe for example. Let’s say I write a new recipe for a cheesecake and post it online. If the recipe is good, people will recommend it to their friends and it will end up spreading. Then let’s say someone comes up with an innovation, add a couple more yolks here, remove some cream cheese there, and bingo they’ve improved the recipe. Then the two variants of the recipe will compete with each other, and whichever recipe is tastier will end up spreading more widely. That is variation and selection at work, pure and simple, the only difference is that the information about how to make the cheesecake is transmitted from organism to organism via language, as opposed to biological evolution where adaptive information is carried in our DNA.
But cultural evolution is about far more than just cheesecakes: languages, businesses, technologies, religions, fashion, music, even something as abstract as systems of governance, all undergo variation and selection all undergo cultural evolution and just like our genes they jostle and compete to drive our behaviour.
This article is an excerpt from episode 3 of the Conscious Evolution Podcast