Cultural evolution in the digital age | Alberto Acerbi

Cultural evolution in the digital age


From emails to social media, from instant messaging to political memes, the way we produce and transmit culture is radically changing. Understanding the consequences of the massive diffusion of digital media is of the utmost importance, both from the intellectual and the social point of view. ‘Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age’ proposes that a specific discipline - cultural evolution - provides an excellent framework to analyse our digital age. Cultural evolution is a vibrant, interdisciplinary, and increasingly productive scientific framework that aims to provide a naturalistic and quantitative explanation of culture. In the book the author shows how cultural evolution offers both a sophisticated view of human behaviour, grounded in cognitive science and evolutionary theory, and a strong quantitative and experimental methodology. The book examines in depth various topics that directly originate from the application of cultural evolution research to digital media. Is online social influence radically different from previous forms of social influence? Do digital media amplify the effects of popularity and celebrity influence? What are the psychological forces that favour the spread of online misinformation? What are the effects of the hyper-availability of information online on cultural cumulation? The cultural evolutionary perspective provides novel insights, and a relatively encouraging take on the overall effects of our online activities on our culture. Cultural Evolution is an area of rapidly growing interest, and this timely book will be important reading for students and researchers in the fields of psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, and the media.

Acerbi, A., Cultural evolution in the digital age, Oxford University Press

Book Club at

The International Cognition and Culture Institute has organised a book club around Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age running in June and July 2020. The book club includes my precis, commentaries by Alex Mesoudi, Hugo Mercier, Mathieu Charbonneau, Olivier Morin, Pascal Boyer, Sacha Altay, and Tiffany Morisseau, plus my reply.

Academic reviews:

With Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age, Acerbi joins the likes of Peter Turchin, David Sloan Wilson, and Joseph Henrich in offering an engaging and accessible application of cultural evolutionary models, which will almost certainly attract new scholars to the field. Never did I expect to read about Grumpy Cat and the social brain hypothesis in the same book, but the result was genuinely satisfying.

In Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age, Acerbi combines cultural evolution with cognitive anthropology and media studies to provide one of the most solid science-based takes on the impact of digital media on human behavior to date.

[…] enjoyable, story-driven journey. […] guide the reader through large and expanding literatures in an entertaining and illuminating way. […] upbeat about human capabilities and provide a useful optimistic counterpoint to the recent spate of epistemological doomsayers.

This book by the anthropologist Alberto Acerbi builds a bridge between the field of media and communication studies and a rather new approach to studying culture: cultural evolution. Can this bridge be a firm structure? And do media studies and cultural evolution even need each other? Acerbi makes a persuasive case for the usefulness and importance of this connection.

Con rigore scientifico, poggiando i piedi su esperimenti di antropologia e riflessioni scientifiche sull’evoluzionismo, Acerbi ci conduce in un inedito viaggio nella nostra quotidianità, disvelando pregiudizi e falsi miti sul mondo digitale, che sottratto al dibattito tra apocalittici della società reale e guru integrati nel mondo dei social, ci viene riproposto come un luogo in cui l’uomo mette in scena sé stesso, con i suoi difetti più torbidi e la sua più alta aspirazione alla conoscenza.

General reviews:

Acerbi advocates for a moderate approach to understanding the impact of digital media. Taking the “long view” provides a more accurate assessment than alarmist reactions. […] Acerbi’s book is filled with hope; it is not a Pollyanna assessment of the digital world but a balanced view." - Choice

Media coverage:

Alberto Acerbi

Cultural Evolution / Cognitive Anthropology / Individual-based modelling / Computational Social Science / Digital Media