Andrea Velasquez

Lara Perry


Panel Presentation Summary


            The article we chose to examine is “Culture and the Evolution of Social Learning,” by Mark Flinn. The article’s main objective is to make a further comparison of the modern evolutionary theory and the traditional anthropological perspectives.  New ideas of learning as an adaptation have “inspired new models of culture,” (Flinn, 1996, p.24). These new ideas have left important issues unresolved and lead to new directions of empirical research. The objective of the article is to examine the evolutionary basis for social learning. Flinn argues that “human learning mechanisms are products of natural selection” and therefore “process information in ways that reflect evolutionary design” (1996, p. 25). Further Flinn believes that social competition is a major selective pressure on human’s metal abilities.

            The population genetics paradigm shows culture as “a distinct co-evolutionary system because transmission of cultural traits via social learning is separate from transmission of genes via DNA replication,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 24). This theory depicts culture as organically evolved but genetically controlled, where learning biases influence culture content. In other words, this approach displays culture as analgoulous to organic evolution.

            Anthropology is seen as a sort of common ground between evolution and social learning. Anthropology has shown that “human aptitudes for culture are products of natural selection” through increases in cranial capacity and australopithecines to modern humans, as well as cognitive differences between humans and other primates,” (Flinn, 1996, p.25). Further research has displayed that biological needs are assisted by culture, and culture (information) is transmitted through the learning process. This proves that cultural change can occur without genetic change, in fact, most cultural changes arise without genetic differences.

            Traditional theories look at learning as a blank slate. Social learning is regarded as a sponge, ready to soak in non-selective chunks of information. In this way we can regard humans as “passive recipients” of culture with culture possessing no direct function. From the opposite side of the spectrum, cultural selection theories “employ an evolutionary model, with cultural traits or memes as transmittable units,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 26). Therefore cultural evolution is regarded as comparable to organic evolution, with cultural traits taking the place of genes. Social learning can be regarded as a process where cultural traits are transmitted and replicated to others. Consequently “a meme has it’s own opportunities for replication and it’s own phenotypic effects, and there is no reason why success in a meme should have any connection whatever with biological success,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 27).

            The dual inheritance theory is similar to cultural selection theories. In dual inheritance theories information pieces underlie cultural traits, which are viewed as distinct entities parallel to genes. Human beings posses two distinct information systems, genetic and cultural, each system is separate from the other. The dual model “emphasizes understanding hoe cultural transmission occurs and the extent to which such transmission is influenced by organically evolved psychological mechanisms,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 27).  This approach displays the transmission of culture as imitating successful individuals, much in the same way that the survival of the fittest occurs.

            Evolved psychological mechanism theories “propose that evolved mental processes provide a critical connection between genes and cultural behavior. Thus the mind is a product of natural selection and is predicted to produce adaptive behaviors in appropriate environments for those behaviors. These theories allow socially transmitted information to be seen as both part of the environment and part of the phenotypes of individuals. What makes the evolved psychological mechanisms model a unique theory is it’s emphasis on the prediction that the human mind and behavior will show evidence of evolutionary design. The brain is thus programmed to work as “an integrated network of task specific models that produce adaptive behavior in appropriate environments, rather than a uniform blank slate or simple learning –biases information processor,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 28).

            One of the greatest sources of disagreement within these theories is the “culture is learned” problem.  In response to this disagreement Flinn states, “cultural differences are due not to genetic differences but to a history of learned responses to different environmental conditions,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 33). There fore, because learning modification of behavior is based on experience, behavioral modifications are thus no less “biological” than physical adaptations. Behavioral modifications can arise through a variety of techniques, trail and error, imitation, selective imitation, and mental scenario building. The success however, is most often attributed to mental decision-making process. These techniques interestingly enough mirror physical adaptations. In other words, techniques that we use to survive evolve just as much as our bodies evolve themselves.

            The information that makes up the basis of our culture is said to have emergent properties, just as our Johnston maintains that our conscious is said to have emergent properties. When information is shared or reproduced among individuals, it may develop emergent properties. In this way, knowledge can become advanced or built upon prior knowledge. These emergent properties seem to give knowledge a life of it’s own, independent from the individual. Culture is said to be an ongoing cycle of information reverberating throughout an individual social group, which in turn creates an interaction from others. This creates an endless cycle of social interaction, which is “filtered and analyzed at each step by psychological mechanisms that are themselves developed during ontogeny in response to the particular subset of information that each individual is exposed to,” (Flinn, 1996, p. 44).

            This article maintains that the study and evolution of culture is not as simple as one model may suggest. In fact, in order to fully understand culture as an evolutionary process we must look to several key factors of influence. A complete theory of culture must include; the effects of social integration and shared information, history (the ongoing cycle), individual psychological and informational development (ontogeny), thee non-cultural environment (geography, demographics, evolved psychological mechanisms that influence a cultures’ trait choice, and chance or random events, (Flinn, 1996).



Culture and the Evolution of Social Learning

By Mark V. Flinn


I.  Researchers Objective:

            To examine the evolutionary basis of social learning by comparing the    modern evolutionary and the traditional anthropological perspective.


II.  Researchers Hypotheses:
            A. Human learning mechanisms are products of natural selection, and hence                   process information in ways that reflect evolutionary design.


            B. Social competition is a primary selective pressure on human mental abilities    (Alexander 1989; Humphrey 1984) that has favored same domain-general, constructivist-learning capabilities and integrate domain-specific mechanisms             (Hirschfeld 1994; MacDonald 1991; Sperber 1996).


III. Learning Aptitudes in Theories of Culture

A.     Traditional Social Science Model

1.      Blank Slate or arbitrary

2.      Culture programs the mind

3.      The function is to maintain society and provide meaning


B.     Cultural Selection Theory

1.      Blank slate, arbitrary, or evolved

2.      Cultural traits compete for replication

3.      There is no function, it is mechanistic


C.     Dual Inheritance Theory

1.      Simple learning biases: imitation, conformity

2.      Learning biases and transmission processes determine culture content

3.      The function is the mix of cultural and biological adaptation


D.     Evolutionary Psychology and behavioral Ecology Theory

1.       Adaptive, complex, multiple learning aptitudes, some specific, others more general

2.       Cumulative result of individual actions, influenced by evolved mental processes, constrained by history and environment

3.       The function is individual inclusive fitness maximization (gene replication)

IV. Review of Common Objections to Flinn’s Hypothesis

            A. Learning processes are uncoupled from genetics and biological adaptation.

1.      Behavioral modifications can arise through a variety of techniques

a.       Trial and error

b.      Imitation

c.       Selective imitation

d.      Mental scenario building


2.      Solutions

a.       “Cultural differences are not due to genetic differences, but to a history of learned responses to different environmental conditions”

b.      “Humans appear ‘smart’; we do not randomly imitate cultural traits, even from apparently successful role models.  Nor are cultural traits employed randomly; individuals strategically use behaviors to suit particular contexts”


B.      Culture (or it’s effects) is partly extrasomatic

1.      The issue is whether or not phenomena outside the body are subject to evolutionary adaptation.

2.      Evolutionary argument

a.       Consider a spider’s web

b.      Web production evidently has been designed by natural selection and hence may be considered part of the spider’s phenotype (Dawkins 1982)

3.      Solution

                                    Things used for survival are just as important as our bodies and                                      evolve in the same ways


C.      Culture, involves mental phenomena, by most definitions, including conscious thought.


1.      An idea can be spread through a population, from one brain to another.

2.      Traditional Anthropologists argue that cultural traits are transmitted by social learning and are independent of genetic evolution

3.      Dawkins (1982:290) hypothesizes that the basis for a cultural trait is a “meme”

a.       “Definite structure, realized in whatever physical medium the brain uses for storing information” (Dawkins 1982; 109)

b.      They culturally evolve to maximize their survival

c.       “Selected” on the basis of their effects


            D.  Culture involves the use of arbitrary symbols to communicate information                 E.  Culture has emergent properties at the group level, such as shared values                         and beliefs resulting in political and religious institutions

                        1. Information may develop emergent properties when it is shared and                               transmitted among individuals

                                    Ex. Knowledge can advance and build on other knowledge


                        2. Solutions

a.       Evolutionary models in cognitive psychology propose that culture may be understood as the cumulative outcome of individual actions, which ultimately are products of evolved psychological mechanisms

b.      Although there is no clear uniform evolutionary model for psychological mechanisms.



            F.   Culture involves historical processes

1.      Whether or not evolved psychological mechanisms fall behind cultural evolution depends on understanding what such mechanisms are, what selective pressures created them, and what the pace and directions of cultural change are. Solutions

a.       Culture appears to be an especially rapid source of change that may alter human environments too quickly for genes underlying psychological learning mechanisms to keep pace.

b.      Having evolved in hunter-gatherer cultural conditions, may not be adapted to current circumstances

c.       Having evolved in hunter-gatherer cultural conditions, may not be adapted to current circumstances



            G.  Complex culture is uniquely human

                        1. Solution

a.       Humans uniquely evolved sophisticated brains because they were the only species to become “their own principal hostile force of nature”

b.      Intellectual and linguistic capacities were favored because such skills allowed individuals to better anticipate and manipulate social interactions with other increasingly intelligent humans.


H.      Methodologies for Recognizing Evolutionary Design

§         The assimilation of modern evolutionary theory into psychology resulted in a somewhat different and complementary methodological approach to that developed in anthropology


I.         Methodology Used to Identify Psychological Adaptations

§         Combination of...

a.       Documenting universality

b.      And fit with the logic of apparent advantage in the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness, postulated to be a foraging environment that dominated most of human evolutionary history

J.         Conclusions

1.        His evolutionary approach views culture as an adaptive part of individual human phenotypes.

2.        Information underlying culture is acquired primarily by social learning, which is stored and analyzed in the human central nervous system.

3.        The mechanisms that create, acquire, retain, and analyze socially transmitted information are products of human evolutionary history, and hence are predicted to be designed to produce adaptive behavior.

4.        Because an individual’s particular situation in society is dynamic and unpredictable, psychological mechanisms are hypothesized to be highly flexible and able to respond appropriately to a wide array of novel challenges.

5.        There is one consistent force acting on the information pool in human minds: the generation and choice of cultural traits (information usage) by evolved psychological mechanisms that use social learning.

6.        Understanding the evolved functions of such cognitive processes and their ontogeny in environmental and historical context is critical to a general theory of culture


V.                 Critical Review

A.                           The Central Nervous System played a role in the storage and analyzing of the information underlying culture.

B.                            His evolutionary approach views culture as an adaptive part of individual phenotypes




Humans uniquely evolved sophisticated brains because they were the only species to become their own hostile force of nature.  This finding agrees with what we have learned in class