Young girls from a small village in Africa have painted each other's faces according with an old traditional design

Cultural evolution

Genes aren’t the only way information can be passed on

Biological evolution is central to our existence and acts through our genes. But there are other ways that something can be passed on from generation to generation.

Culture – our system of beliefs, values and knowledge – is passed on through interaction between people, for example by storytelling or writing.

One of the strongest cultural systems is language, which shows clear signs of evolutionary change. Linguists have distinguished families of languages. English, for example, is part of the Indo-European family, which includes Sanskrit and other Asian tongues as well as European languages.

Many animals have now been shown to learn from observing other members of their own species or even other species.

Interestingly, there is also some evidence of cultural evolution in other animals. Many animals have now been shown to learn from observing other members of their own species or even other species. Culturally transmitted tool use has been seen in primates, such as chimpanzees, and even dolphins.

Social customs

Many social customs are deeply ingrained. Some are maintained by selective pressures – for example, gift giving. In Polynesian culture in the 1800s, if a gift was received and nothing given in exchange, then the receiver would lose their spiritual source of guidance and wealth, so it made sense for people to exchange presents.

In other cases, it can be difficult to disentangle biological and cultural explanations. In most cultures, incest is taboo. This could be a social convention, but it could also have a biological basis: inbreeding is often harmful to the health of offspring, so mechanisms preventing it can have a selective advantage.

Lead image:

Frontierofficial/Flickr CC BY


Questions for discussion

  • How similar is transmission of information through culture and evolution by natural selection?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Ecology and environment, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development