Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.