Culture and Evolutionary Explanations

Dissertation, University of Guelph (Canada) (1999)


The main thesis defended in this dissertation is that culture makes a difference. It is argued that this is so because culture evolves just as species do. It is maintained that if one views culture as an evolving system, then this has some fundamental conceptual, ontological, and explanatory implications. Specifically, construing culture as an evolving system leads one to explain cultural phenomena and behaviors differently from alternative theories. Hence, this thesis is devoted to laying the foundations for a satisfactory theory of cultural evolution. Chapter 1 explains the conditions under which culture can be seen as evolving and attempts to clarify the structure of a theory of cultural evolution. Chapter 2 stresses the kind of explanatory work that a theory of cultural evolution is capable of doing by developing an approach to explanation called explanatory pluralism. Chapter 3 argues that a theory of cultural evolution must include an account of cultural fitness. A multidimensional approach to cultural fitness is put forth and the function and explanatory utility of this approach are stressed. Then chapter 4 addresses the question of whether there is such a thing as cultural selection. It is argued that though culture is no doubt selective, there is not one selection mechanism driving cultural evolution. Rather, it is claimed that the evolution of culture has been the evolution of a multitude of selection mechanisms. Chapter 5 concludes by pointing out another interesting consequence of culture, namely, that it may favor the evolution of altruism and maladaptive traits

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