Cultural Evolution

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In this book, Kate Distin proposes a theory of cultural evolution and shows how it can help us 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 limitation of each individual language. Distin shows how the concept of cultural evolution outlined in this book can help us understand the complexity and diversity of human culture, relating her theory to a range of subjects including economics, linguistics and developmental biology.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

"....There are a number of positive aspects of this book. Foremost is Distin’s clear exposition of her ideas, evident in both this book and her earlier book on memetics; and, in the context of contributions incorporated from an impressive number of fields.... The organization of the sections and chapters is very sensible, and a good number of the citations are from the very latest research in linguistics, memetics, and biological and cultural evolutionary theory...."
– Rebecca Wells-Jopling, Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto, Philosophy in Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521189712
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2010
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Distin was educated at Cambridge University and the University of Sheffield. She is the author of The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and the editor of the award-winning Gifted Children: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (2006).

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: "Small Consequences of One General Law" 1

Part I The Inheritance of Cultural Information

2 What Is Information? 11

3 How Is Information Inherited? 25

Part II The Inheritance of Cultural Information: Natural Language

4 Natural Language and Culture: The Biological Building Blocks 49

5 How Did Natural Language Evolve? 62

6 Language, Thought and Culture 78

Part III The Inheritance of Cultural Information: Artefactual Language

7 How Did Artefactual Language Evolve? 89

8 Artefactual Language, Representation and Culture 107

9 Money: An Artefactual Language 126

10 Money: The Explanatory Power of Artefactual Languages 146

Part IV The Receivers of Cultural Information

11 How Does Human Diversity Affect Cultural Evolution? 169

Part V The Expression of Cultural Information

12 Aspects of the Cultural Ecology 185

13 Patterns of Cultural Taxonomy 200

14 Conclusion: A Representational Understanding of Cultural Evolution 220

Appendix: What about Memetics? 231

Acknowledgements 235

Bibliography 239

Index 263

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