The cultural evolution of emergent group-level traits

Behav Brain Sci. 2014 Jun;37(3):243-54. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X13001544.


Many of the most important properties of human groups - including properties that may give one group an evolutionary advantage over another - are properly defined only at the level of group organization. Yet at present, most work on the evolution of culture has focused solely on the transmission of individual-level traits. I propose a conceptual extension of the theory of cultural evolution, particularly related to the evolutionary competition between cultural groups. The key concept in this extension is the emergent group-level trait. This type of trait is characterized by the structured organization of differentiated individuals and constitutes a unit of selection that is qualitatively different from selection on groups as defined by traditional multilevel selection (MLS) theory. As a corollary, I argue that the traditional focus on cooperation as the defining feature of human societies has missed an essential feature of cooperative groups. Traditional models of cooperation assume that interacting with one cooperator is equivalent to interacting with any other. However, human groups involve differential roles, meaning that receiving aid from one individual is often preferred to receiving aid from another. In this target article, I discuss the emergence and evolution of group-level traits and the implications for the theory of cultural evolution, including ramifications for the evolution of human cooperation, technology, and cultural institutions, and for the equivalency of multilevel selection and inclusive fitness approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Altruism
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Cultural Evolution*
  • Group Processes*
  • Humans
  • Psychological Theory
  • Selection, Genetic*