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Cultural Evolution


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 (ISBN-13: 9780511784255)

In this book, Kate Distin proposes a theory of cultural evolution and shows how it can help us to understand the origin and development of human culture. Distin introduces the concept that humans share information not only in natural languages, which are spoken or signed, but also in artefactual languages like writing and musical notation, which use media that are made by humans. Languages enable humans to receive and transmit variations in cultural information and resources. In this way, they provide the mechanism for cultural evolution. The human capacity for metarepresentation - thinking about how we think - accelerates cultural evolution, because it frees cultural information from the conceptual limitations of each individual language. Distin shows how the concept of cultural evolution outlined in this book can help us to understand the complexity and diversity of human culture, relating her theory to a range of subjects including economics, linguistics, and developmental biology.

• Explains the origin of culture as the product of both natural and artefactual languages • Introduces a powerful new conceptual tool, namely the distinction between natural and artefactual languages • Presents evidence, from a range of academic disciplines, that cultural evolution is a defensible theory with genuine explanatory value


1. Introduction: small consequences of one general law; Part I. The Inheritance of Cultural Information: 2. What is information?; 3. How is information inherited?; Part II. The Inheritance of Cultural Information: Natural Language: 4. Natural language and culture: the biological building blocks; 5. How did natural language evolve?; 6. Language, thought, and culture; Part III. In Inheritance of Cultural Information: Artefactual Language: 7. How did artefactual language evolve?; 8. Artefactual language, representation and culture; 9. Money: an artefactual language; 10. Money: the explanatory power of artefactual languages; Part III. The Receivers of Cultural Information: 11. How does human diversity affect cultural evolution?; Part IV. The Expression of Cultural Information: 12. Aspects of the cultural ecology; 13. Patterns of cultural taxonomy; 14. Conclusion: a representational understanding of cultural evolution; Appendix: what about memetics?


'Why cultural evolution is cumulative in humans, but not in other species, remains a significant puzzle. Distin argues that our brain's ability to represent information to itself (so-called metarepresentation) enabled the accelerating increases in cultural complexity that are so distinctive of our species. She suggests that metarepresentation, first manifest in syntactic language, was later augmented by the storage and transmission of information through artifacts. Further, as stores of information, artifacts have significant advantages - they are stable, durable, and almost infinite in capacity - features that make it possible for cultural information to increase and diversify. Her approach brings fresh insights and novel perspectives to this difficult problem at the center of human evolution.' Robert Aunger, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

'In The Selfish Meme, Kate Distin brought conceptual clarity to a term that had been overly complicated. The advantages of the term 'meme' had been obscured - sometimes by the term's champions, but more often by those with pretheoretical agendas that made them hostile to the aspects of cognition (human irrationality) that the term highlighted. In The Selfish Meme, Distin restored the term's usefulness. In Cultural Evolution, Distin has a larger goal in mind - nothing less than a full-blown theory of the development of human knowledge. Given the Promethean goal of the book, it is remarkable how much the volume succeeds. Using various tools of modern cognitive science - from knowledge of the structure of language to the notion of metarepresentation - Distin gives us an expansive framework for understanding cultural evolution.' Keith E. Stanovich, University of Toronto, author of What Intelligence Tests Miss and The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

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