evolution. Key differences include the nature of forces that act on cultural transmission, the observed patterns of transmission, and the relative rates of adaptation. Several of the forces that act on cultural variation to cause cultural evolutionary change include ones familiar to evolutionary biologists, such as random errors in teaching or acquiring items of culture (mutation), statistical effects in small populations (drift), and the effects on an individual’s life chances as a consequence of using different cultural variants (natural selection). Other forces on cultural evolution are distinctive and derive from the fact that the acquirers of culture, even infants, are choice-making agents. People can to some extent pick and choose from among the different cultural variants they observe. Assuming their choices are not random, this creates a variety of bias forces that can be defined by how the choices are made (Richerson et al., 2003). Humans also selectively transmit variants that they have learned to their offspring and to others. We call such psychological processes “decision-making forces.” Parent-offspring transmission dominates much (although not all) genetic transmission. In contrast, evidence on transmission patterns from a variety of sources indicates that individuals, including both children and adults, learn from a large, dynamic social network including parents, siblings, peers, and a wide range of others. The social learner uses biases that focus attention on those who tend to be same-sex, same-ethnicity, older, successful, prestigious, and available in order to accumulate a cultural repertoire from their social networks (Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza, 1986; Henrich and Henrich, 2007; McElreath et al., 2008). Humans also generate new variants by nonrandom processes such as individual learning and creative thinking.
Field evidence on adaptive rates shows that they can be much faster for cultural evolution compared with genetic evolution (Rogers, 1995; Richerson and Boyd, 2005). For example, when American sweet potatoes tolerant of cool weather became available to the peoples of Highland New Guinea a few centuries ago, the new crop set off a population explosion and a spurt of parallel social and economic innovations in a number of Highland societies (Wiessner and Tumu, 1998). Attractive gadgets, such as mobile phones, have been taken up avidly around the contemporary world, and many of them lead to important knock-on cultural changes. The upshot of the differences between cultural and genetic evolution is that cultural evolution is inherently faster than genetic evolution.
Converging lines of evidence from many disciplines indicate that our psychological capacities for cultural learning evolved as an adaptation to temporally and spatially variable environments (Richerson et al., 2005; Herrmann et al., 2007). By adding bias forces and the transmitted effects of individual learning to random variation and natural selection, the cultural system can more rapidly track changing environments than can