The best books on cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi Author Of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences
By Alex Mesoudi

Who am I?

I am Professor of Cultural Evolution at the University of Exeter, UK. In my research I use lab experiments and theoretical models to understand how human culture evolves. Since my undergraduate psychology degree I have always been attracted to big ideas about how evolution has shaped human minds. Yet evolutionary psychology, with its stone age brains frozen in time, seemed unsatisfying. This led me to cultural evolution, with its grand idea that the same evolutionary process underlies both genetic and cultural change. Humans are not just products of countless generations of genetic evolution, but also of cultural evolution. This view of humanity is grander than any other I’ve come across.


I wrote...

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

By Alex Mesoudi,

Book cover of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

What is my book about?

Charles Darwin revolutionised biology by showing how his theory of evolution can account for the stunning diversity and complexity of life on earth. Over the last few decades, a growing group of scholars have argued that the same theory of evolution can also explain the stunning diversity and complexity of human culture, encompassing languages, religion, technology, economic systems, art, literature, science, and more. Cultural Evolution provides an accessible overview of this burgeoning field, explaining what it means to say that culture ‘evolves,’ and how evolutionary tools developed in biology can illuminate problems that have long bedevilled the social sciences and humanities. It also argues that just as evolutionary theory united and synthesised the biological sciences, it can do the same for the social sciences.

The books I picked & why

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On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves)

By Jonnie Hughes,

Book cover of On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves)

Why this book?

This is probably the best pop-science book on cultural evolution that I have read. It’s written by Johnnie Hughes, a nature documentary maker who has since worked on series such as Netflix’s Our Planet. It’s half science book, half travelogue, telling the story of Hughes and his brother’s road trip across the USA, like a mini Voyage of the Beagle. As they go, they explore how the design of teepees has evolved over time to take the varied forms that are currently seen in Native American communities. This is a really entertaining way of introducing the idea that ideas evolve.


The Meme Machine

By Susan Blackmore,

Book cover of The Meme Machine

Why this book?

Long before ‘memes’ became a synonym for catchy internet videos, they were a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his classic 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe a ‘cultural replicator’ analogous to the gene. In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore took this side-thought and ran with it. She argues that human culture in general, as well as specific phenomena such as the origin of language and cooperation, can best be seen through a ‘meme’s eye view’ of selfish memes competing to replicate themselves. Modern cultural evolution research remains sceptical of this rather extreme perspective, often thinking more in terms of benefits and costs to individuals or groups, but Blackmore’s book is thought-provoking and well worth a read.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

By Joseph Henrich,

Book cover of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Why this book?

Joe Henrich is a major figure in cultural evolution research and this book represents his big-picture overview of how cultural evolution has transformed humans into the globally dominant species that we are today. He explains how cumulative cultural evolution produces cultural adaptations that solve challenges in our environments usually solved by genetic adaptation, and how cultural evolution has shaped our brains, bodies, and even our genes. Henrich has held positions in anthropology, economics, and psychology departments and this shows in the breadth of research upon which he draws. This book provides the theoretical basis for many more recent works, including Henrich’s own The Weirdest People in the World.


A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

By Joel Mokyr,

Book cover of A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Why this book?

I’ve included this book to illustrate how the perspective of cultural evolution is spreading to disciplines and problems far beyond its origins in biology and anthropology. In this case the discipline is economic history and the problem is explaining why the Enlightenment, which paved the way for the rapid technological and economic transformations brought about by the subsequent Industrial Revolution, occurred when it did (1500-1700) and where it did (Western Europe). Mokyr’s answer draws on cultural evolutionary concepts to argue that a culturally transmitted mindset of innovation and progress, as well as the intense competition of ideas within a politically fragmented Europe, led to rapid scientific advances. Essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of the modern world.


Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

By Cecilia Heyes,

Book cover of Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

Why this book?

While ‘nature vs nurture’ is an unhelpful dichotomy, most psychologists still assume that our species’ unique cognitive abilities, from language to mindreading, are innate products of genetic evolution. Here Celia Heyes provides a counter-argument to this assumption, arguing instead that human cognition is often the product of cultural evolution. Something like language is therefore not an ‘instinct’ but rather a ‘cognitive gadget,’ akin to a technological gadget, transmitted culturally rather than genetically. This is one of those books that makes you rethink your assumptions, and whether you agree or not with its claims, you come out smarter at the end.


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