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the human lineage, theory and some evidence suggest that such effects were profound. Genomic methods promise to have a major impact on our understanding of gene–culture coevolution over the span of hominin evolutionary history.

The human cultural system supports the cumulative evolution of complex adaptations to local, often ephemeral environments. Using elaborate technology and depending on large bodies of cultural knowledge about plants and animals, stone-age foragers spread to a much wider range of habitats than any other mammal, from the frigid tundra in the Arctic to the arid deserts of Australia. The Polynesian outrigger canoe and the Arctic kayak are examples of the astoundingly sophisticated cultural adaptations that people have used to occupy distant corners of the globe. The forms of social organizations observed in humans are more diverse than the rest of the primate order combined. Humans constitute one of the world’s most impressive adaptive radiations. We have occupied virtually every habitat on Earth by using technology and social organization to generate thousands of socioeconomic systems (Henrich and McElreath, 2003; Richerson and Boyd, 2005).


Culture has many definitions, but for our purposes a useful one is all of the information that individuals acquire from others by a variety of social learning processes including teaching and imitation (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Transmission fidelity is often sufficiently high for culture to act as an inheritance system (Henrich and Boyd, 2002). We commonly observe that the ideas, practices, skills, attitudes, norms, art styles, technology, ways of speaking, and other elements of culture change through time, but we also see that persistent traditions exist. The English of Shakespeare is plainly a recent ancestor of the language spoken in England today, but modern English speakers cannot fully appreciate his plays without some knowledge of the differences between Elizabethan and modern English. Culture is thus a system of descent with modification. The idea that culture is fundamentally a kind of inheritance system that can be investigated using “population thinking” has been very productive. It led evolutionary theorists to model cultural evolutionary process by drawing tools and inspiration from fields as diverse as population genetics, epidemiology, ecology, game theory, and stochastic processes (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Boyd and Richerson, 1985).

Those familiar with genetic evolution may be aided by considering some of the similarities and differences between genetic and cultural

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