Next Event: January Talk

‘The Case for Cultural Group Selection


Professor Peter J. Richerson,

(Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis)



Abstract: Robert Boyd and I have long argued that group selection on culturally transmitted variation has been an important force in gene-cultural coevolution, particularly in the evolution of human “social instincts.” This argument remains controversial. I will review the evidence for three forms of group selection act on cultural variation: (1) differential extinction and proliferation of social organizations, (2) selective borrowing from successful organizations, (3) selective immigration into successful organizations. The main empirical plank of the case for cultural group selection is that the proximal details of cultural inheritance make it much easier for microevolutionary processes to build up and maintain variation between organizations than is the case for genetic inheritance. Consistent with theoretical models of the generation of intergroup variation in the two cases, cultural variation between neighboring ethnic groups is about ten times genetic variation between the same groups. In many cases, organizations institutionalize social behavior, meaning that people are expected to conform to rules of behavior that are reinforced by systems of reward and punishment. Institutions suppress individual variation within organizations. Different organizations tend to evolve different institutions, generating equilibrium selection when they compete. Almost any system of organizations is potentially subject to cultural group selection. Competing business firms in capitalist economies are a famous example. Evolutionary genomics has greatly increased our confidence that culture can drive the evolution of genes. The best worked out alternative to group selection on cultural variation, and subsequent gene-culture coevolution, to explain human abilities to form cooperative organizations is the indirect reciprocity argument. Socially intelligent actors certainly use tools such as reputation and punishment to enforce cooperation. But social intelligence, reputation and altruistic punishment are equally plausibly an ultimate result of cultural group selection.

Date: January 25th 2011, 18.30

Location: JZ Young Lecture Theatre (Anatomy Department, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT) [MAP]

This event is free and all are welcome!


Next Event: LERN Annual Debate 2009

Over the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in group/multilevel selection as an explanatory framework, particularly with respect to cooperative behaviour in humans and eusocial animals.

We at the London Evolutionary Research Network think this is a fascinating and timely topic, and we are pleased to announce our forthcoming debate.

Four eminent speakers in the field will be discussing the motion:

Is natural selection at the group level an important evolutionary force?

Stuart West
Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Oxford

Herbert Gintis
Professor of Economics, Santa Fe Intitute, University of Siena, and Central European University

Samir Okasha
Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Bristol

Mark Pagel
Professor of Biology, University of Reading

This is the first debate-style talk LERN has hosted. Each speaker will get 20 minutes to present their ideas followed by 10 minutes rebuttal time. There will be a substantial Q&A period at the end of the talks. Tea and biscuits will be served during a break. This event is free.

Date: 7 July 2009, Tuesday

Time: 15.30 – 18.30

Location: JZ Young Lecture Theater,

Anatomy Building, University College London

LINK TO MAP Entrance via Gower Street or Malet Place.