Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution

Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

136 Scopus citations


Recent debates about memetics have revealed some widespread misunderstandings about Darwinian approaches to cultural evolution. Drawing from these debates, this paper disputes five common claims: (1) mental representations are rarely discrete, and therefore models that assume discrete, gene-like particles (i.e., replicators) are useless; (2) replicators are necessary for cumulative, adaptive evolution; (3) content-dependent psychological biases are the only important processes that affect the spread of cultural representations; (4) the "cultural fitness" of a mental representation can be inferred from its successful transmission; and (5) selective forces only matter if the sources of variation are random. We close by sketching the outlines of a unified evolutionary science of culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-137
Number of pages19
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2008
Externally publishedYes



  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural transmission
  • Dual inheritance theory
  • Epidemiology of representations
  • Memes
  • Replicators

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science

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