The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2

65 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2020

Date Written: August 15, 2010


The study of cultural evolution requires a comprehensive approach to les sciences de l’homme using methods and insights from researchers trained in both the humanities and the sciences. Only humanists have the wide ranging knowledge of cultural phenomena necessary for effective analytic and descriptive control of the primary phenomena; without such control model building and theory testing are pointless. Scientists, on the other hand, are beginning develop tools for thinking about population-wide maintenance, propagation, and incremental change of cultural codes. At the micro-scale we need to understand, not only perceptual and cognitive processes, but, most critically, the negotiation of meaning through interaction. At the macro-scale we need to see how changes in cultural codes supports the emergence of new mentalities. Taken in sum these efforts will show us how the design of cultural codes emerges from the collective efforts of populations where each individual negotiates his or her life transaction by transaction.

Individual performances are the objects of cultural selection. Performances, in this sense, are the brain events that mediate cultural processes. Individuals and groups endeavor to repeat performances the like, but not performances they don’t like. The “genetic” elements of cultural processes are those properties of cultural objects and events which allow individuals to share in those objects and events. In music, for example, so-called Rhythm Changes is an example of a complex of such memetically active properties. Note, however, that word meanings cannot, in principle, be memetically active, as they are not “inscribed” in the physical substance of linguistic communication - whether by speech, gestures, or writing. Linguistic meanings are negotiated through interaction.

Keywords: culture, evollution, cultural evolution, cultural selection, meme, music, language, narrative

Suggested Citation

Benzon, William L., The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2 (August 15, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics