A few books very relevant for cultural evolution have been published in the last months.
Tim Lewens’ Cultural Evolution (Oxford University Press) is an excellent take on the theoretical background of cultural evolutionary studies. I wrote about some aspects of the book in the blog, and, more recently, Philosophy of Science asked me to write a short review, that should appear soon. While obviously I am not completely convinced by all his arguments (in particular, by his very broad characterisation of cultural evolutionary studies as “kinetic theories”, see my blog post here), I am convinced by most of them (see, for example, another post here on the claims of Lamarckism in cultural evolution). Mainly, whether one agrees or not with his treatment, Lewens has the merit of spelling out clearly several critical aspects of cultural evolutionary theories. I am aware the previous is a template-sentence for book reviews, but I think in this case it is important as, mostly, cultural evolutionists are more involved in the empirical aspects of their work than in the theoretical ones – even though I am not sure this is a bad thing. In sum, a very important reading for anyone seriously interested in cultural evolution.
Second, Joe Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success (Princeton University Press). I do not think this need much presentation for the readers of this blog (and if you read this blog and you do not know what I am talking about, then you should definitely read this book). Henrich’s volume is a very good overview of the “standard” cultural evolution approach, i.e. the approach developed by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson and various colleagues starting from the 80s of the last Century (others call it the “California school”). I did not expect to find much new material, so I was not exactly thrilled when I started to read it (but, as I just said, if you do not know what I am talking about: you should be thrilled!), but the book reads very well, and I found the breadth of ethnographic examples – mostly unknown to me – worth the time spent reading.
Finally, Olivier Morin’s How Traditions Live and Die (Oxford University Press). While criticisms of “standard” cultural evolution in the past years tended to come from mainstream socio-cultural anthropology and to be slightly repetitive (usual accusations of reductionism, loosing nuances, etc.), Morin’s book presents a valid alternative (more on this below!) approach – quantitative, naturalistic – to culture, mainly inspired by the work of Dan Sperber and colleagues. Morin suggests a vision of cultural transmission in which individual reconstruction is more important than faithful copying, and in which specific, “attractive”, features of cultural traits are more important for their success than domain-general transmission biases (e.g. copy the majority, copy the successful, etc.). My only comment, for the time being, is that I believe the considerations that Morin put forward are an urgent and necessary integration, more than an alternative, to what is done in standard cultural evolution, and a call to more empirical research, more than a solution to the issues on the table (this is basically the same opinion expressed in Acerbi and Mesoudi 2015). Another interesting point of Morin’s book is that his vision of cultural attraction is different, at least in my perspective, from the very general and all-embracing definition discussed here (and, especially, in the paper with Alex Mesoudi linked above), that does not convince me much. In Morin’s account, when, say, local, idiosyncratic, features are more important than universal, stable, ones, than cultural attraction is less important than other forces. Or at least this is how I read it.
I might be biased here – Olivier, differently from Tim Lewens or Joe Henrich, cooked me once a venison (if I remember correctly) stew – but How Traditions Live and Die is an absolute must read for everybody interested in the study of culture.
I will try in the next weeks to elaborate on these thoughts, and I will write a combined short-ish review of the two books (Henrich’s and Morin’s), which will appear in late spring in Current Anthropology.
Just to be crystal clear: this post is about recent and general books about cultural evolution. There are excellent books which are general and not recent (for example Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution), and others which are recent but not general (for example Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety).