Within the last two decades, researchers have turned to Darwinian evolution to help them explain how cultural patterns persist and change over time. Culture may not seem to be the kind of thing that evolves like a biological species does, but it turns out that culture behaves in similar ways. Cultural artifacts seem to replicate with both fidelity and error, for example, and they adapt and change in order to persist through time.  

Researchers who study the evolution of culture have often assumed that cultural traditions persist because they partake of a similar kind of copying to that which occurs when biological species transmit genetic information — that is, copying that involves minimal random error. In this vein, like DNA, cultural forms persist when they are replicated as faithfully as possible to their original form. 

But based on new research, SFI Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow Helena Miton argues that the story of cultural evolution is somewhat different. While cultural artifacts do persist in ways that are analogous to the way that species persist genetically, the persistence of cultural phenomena is better explained by the ways cultural copying regularly involves errors and innovations. For Miton, it is the ways that cultural artifacts are transformed over time that explains their persistence, not strict fidelity to the original. 

Read Miton’s essay in SAPIENS (July 28, 2021)