Modeling sociocultural evolution

Summer2013, July: Emanuele Serrelli teaches (with Nathalie Gontier) Modeling sociocultural evolution at the 1st International Summer School on Evolution, Ciencia Viva Knowledge Pavilion, Lisbon, Portugal. The program is also on


Course Description

In recent years, the classic humanity and life science departments have seen a fast rise of new fields such as Evolutionary Anthropology, Evolutionary Sociology, Evolutionary Linguistics and Evolutionary Psychology. These new fields primarily examine how Natural Selection Theory can be universalized to explain the origin and evolution of human cognition, culture or language. A consequence is that scholars active in dual inheritance theories, gene-culture co-evolutionary theory, memetics, or the units and (multiple) levels of selection debate, are actively seeking what the adaptive benefits are of sociocultural traits; what the sociocultural analogs are of genes; and which sociocultural selective pressures or levels of sociocultural selection can be distinguished.

We, on the contrary, will explore how biological evolutionary theories that are associated with the Extended Synthesis can be extended and implemented into studies on human, sociocultural and linguistic evolution.

In biology, theories of symbiosis, symbiogenesis, horizontal and lateral gene transfer have demonstrated that the transmission of traits does not necessarily follow a linear and vertical pattern of descent. In sociocultural evolution too, the transmission of traits is multidirectional, and often occurs through horizontal transmission.

Punctuated equilibria theory has proven that evolution is not necessarily gradual, and scholars active in the fields of archeology and anthropology also point out periods in human evolution that are characterized by cultural stasis which are intermitted by rapid sociocultural change.

Phenotypic plasticity and niche construction theory are currently redefining how we should perceive the interaction between biological organisms and their environments. Rather than being passive entities that undergo selection by an active environment, biologists are currently investigating how organisms partly construct their niche and how organisms are able to demonstrate plasticity towards changing environments. These theories too provide new means by which we can conceptualize sociocultural evolution.

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Sociocultural Evolution Studies and Applied Evolutionary Epistemology (Emanuele & Nathalie)

  • Dawkins, R. 1983 Universal Darwinism. In Hull, D.L. & Ruse, M. (eds.) The philosophy of biology. New York: Oxford University Press: 15-35. [First published in Bendall, D.S. (ed.) 1998 Evolution from molecules to man. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 403-25.]
  • Campbell, D.T. 1997 From Evolutionary Epistemology via Selection Theory to a Sociology of Scientific Validity. Evolution and Cognition 3: 5-38.
  • Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN 2006 Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:329-383.
  • Gontier N. 2012 Applied Evolutionary Epistemology: A New Methodology to Enhance Interdisciplinary Research Between the Human and Natural Sciences. Kairos, Journal of Philosophy and Science, 4: 7-49.

Lecture 2: Sociocultural Evolution and Universal Symbiogenesis (Nathalie)

  • Gontier N. 2007.Universal Symbiogenesis: a Genuine Alternative to Universal Selectionist Accounts. Symbiosis 44: 167-181.
  • Hird, M.J. Symbiosis, Microbes, Coevolution and Sociology. Ecological Economics, 2008, 10(001): 1-6.
  • van Driem, George (2008). The Origin of Language: Symbiosism and Symbiomism, pp. 381-400 in John D. Bengtson, ed., In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Shijulal NS, List JM, Geisler H, Fangerau H, Gray RD, Martin W, Dagan T 2010 Networks Uncover Hidden Lexical Borrowing in Indo-European Language evolution. Proc R Soc B: doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1917

Lecture 3: Sociocultural Evolution and Punctuated Equilibria Theory, Stasis, Drift and Rapid (Macro)Evolution (Nathalie)

  • Borgerhoff Mulder M, Nunn CL & Towner M 2006 Macroevolutionary Studies of Cultural Trait Variation: The Importance of Transmission Mode. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 52-64.
  • Eldredge N 2011 Paleontology and Cornets: Thoughts on Material Culture. Evolution: Education and Outreach 4: 264-373
  • d’Errico F. 2003 The Invisible Frontier: a Multiple Species Model of the Origin of Behavioral Modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.
  • Bentley RA, Hahn MW & Shennan SJ 2004 Random Drift and Culture Change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Vol 271. 1443-1450.

Lecture 4: Niche Construction and Cultural Evolution (Emanuele)

Laland, K.N. & Sterelny, K., 2006 Perspective: 7 Reasons (not) to Neglect Niche Construction. Evolution, 60(9), 1751–1762.

  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2011 Niche Construction in the Light of Niche Theory. Ecology Letters, 14(2), 82-90.
  • Laland KN, O’Brien MJ 2010 Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, December 2010, Volume 17, Issue 4 (monographic issue on niche construction), 303-322.
  • Jeremy Kendal, Jamshid J. Tehrani and John Odling-Smee (2011). Human Niche Construction in Interdisciplinary Focus. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366 (1566, monographic issue on NC), 785-792.

Lecture 5: Phenotypic Plasticity and Niche Construction (Emanuele)

  • Pigliucci, M., 2007. Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? Evolution, 61(12), 2743–2749.
  • Pfennig, D.W. et al., 2010. Phenotypic Plasticity’s Impacts on Diversification and Speciation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(8), 459–67.
  • Donohue, K., 2005. Niche Construction Through Phenological Plasticity: Life History Dynamics and Ecological Consequences. The New Phytologist, 166(1), 83–92.
  • Panebianco F, Serrelli E (working paper), Niche Construction with “Reaction Norms” and Phenotypic Selection?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Atkinson QD et al. 2008 Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Science 319 (5863): 588.
  • Ingold, T. 1990 An Anthropologist Looks at Biology. Man, N.S. 25: 208-29.
  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2008 Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Niche Construction for its Agent. Ecology Letters, 11(10), 1072-81.
  • Gontier N. 2010. Evolutionary Epistemology as a Scientific Method: a New Look Upon the Units and Levels of Evolution Debate. Theory in Biosciences 129 (2-3): 167-182.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) Exaptation: A Crucial Tool for Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Social Issues 47(3): 43–65.
  • Smallegange, I.M. & Coulson, T., 2012. Towards a General, Population-level Understanding of Eco-evolutionary Change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 1–6.
  • Speidel, M. 2000 The Parasitic Host: Symbiosis contra Neo-Darwinism. Pli, The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 9: 119-38.
  • Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F., 2012. Social Competence: an Evolutionary Approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(12), 679–688.
Teachers at the first Summer School on Evolution, AppEEL, Lisbon, 2013
Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard, Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli. From Marion Blute’s blog.