Research program

Human culture is cumulative, which means that beliefs, art, technology, society etc. are results of many generations of cultural change. In light of biological evolution, the rise of human culture is very rapid and so is the cultural adaptation to new environments. How this happened offers a scientific puzzle.

The capacity for cumulative culture gives mankind a unique potential to change and improve life, but culture can also impoverish and even ruin human existence. Thus, understanding the dynamics of culture is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, cultural research has been hampered by insularity of disciplines and lack of unifying well-defined key concepts and valid mathematical models. This proposal brings together scientists with different backgrounds in a joint research effort to gain scientific understanding of the origin and dynamics of human cumulative culture. Such understanding would allow us to obtain a more integrated view of human history but also to make informed decisions concerning the future.

We will take a modern evolutionary approach, combining novel and innovative theoretical and empirical research. We ask a number of specific questions about the origins, dynamics, and outcomes of cumulative culture. Since mathematical theory of cumulative cultural evolution is lacking, we will use state-of-the-art mathematics to develop a series of methods for modelling cumulative cultural evolution. These models will be applied to our questions. Empirical research aims at exploring our questions and test specific theoretical predictions. Such studies include archaeological and historical investigations of the cultural evolution of food habits and the evolution of beliefs, moral codes and laws, as well as studies of animal cultural capacities, and laboratory experiments on human cumulative culture.

Illustration from "The Evolution of Technology" by George Basalla (2002)