Cultural Replication Theory and Law: Proximate Mechanisms Make a Difference

Vermont Law Review, Vol. 30, pp. 989-1004, 2006

Posted: 29 Dec 2008

Date Written: December 28, 2008


Culturally-transmitted behavioral information exhibits a Darwinian evolutionary dynamic. The argument is straightforward. Darwinian evolution has three basic elements: (1) replicative descent with (2) variation, subject to (3) a form of selection. Bundles of cultural information as diverse as language, religious practices, and how to bake bread pass with imperfect fidelity from generation to generation. Some of the variants created by these imperfections are passed, nonrandomly, to the next generation with greater frequency. These kinds of approaches can be applied to help understand legal systems

Recent studies have recognized the need both for a more general approach to evolutionary phenomena, of which cultural and biological processes can be seen as specific cases, as well as for better, sui generis descriptions of the proximate mechanisms through which cultural elements replicate, vary, and have differential replicative success. A better description of the proximate mechanisms of cultural transmission will provide a clearer understanding of cultural evolution and of evolutionary approaches to the law itself.

Viewing cultural transmission as the replication of actions, rather than of ideas, focuses us on a key bottleneck. In humans, replicating actions can be broadly categorized into three modes: nonlinguistic transmission, stories, and formulas. Decoupling the transmission of language-based elements from their translation into action can help us to understand such human questions as hypocrisy and failures in the legal system and suggests pathways for further application in the law.

Keywords: evolution of culture, information replication, transmission of culture

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Goodenough, Oliver R., Cultural Replication Theory and Law: Proximate Mechanisms Make a Difference (December 28, 2008). Vermont Law Review, Vol. 30, pp. 989-1004, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Oliver R. Goodenough (Contact Author)

Vermont Law School ( email )

164 Chelsea Street
P.O. Box 96
South Royalton, VT 05068
United States
802 831 1231 (Phone)


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