Studying cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory



Caldwell CA & Millen AE (2008) Studying cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363 (1509), pp. 3529-3539.

Cumulative cultural evolution is the term given to a particular kind of social learning, which allows for the accumulation of modifications over time, involving a ratchet-like effect where successful modifications are maintained until they can be improved upon. There has been great interest in the topic of cumulative cultural evolution from researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, but until recently there were no experimental studies of this phenomenon. Here we describe our motivations for developing experimental methods for studying cumulative cultural evolution, and review results we have obtained using these techniques. The results that we describe have provided insights into understanding the outcomes of cultural processes at the population level. Our experiments show that cumulative cultural evolution can result in adaptive complexity in behaviour, and also can also produce convergence in behaviour. These findings lend support to ideas that some behaviours commonly attributed to natural selection and innate tendencies could in fact be shaped by cultural processes.

social learning; culture; cultural evolution; social change; human evolution; social evolution

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences: Volume 363, Issue 1509

Publication date30/11/2008
PublisherThe Royal Society

People (2)


Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor Christine Anna Caldwell

Professor, Psychology

Dr Ailsa Millen

Dr Ailsa Millen

Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology