Kate Distin

Cultural Evolution - Cambridge University Press, 2011

In this book, I propose a theory of cultural evolution and show how it can help us to understand the origin and development of human culture. I introduce the concept that humans share information not only in natural languages, which are spoken or signed, but also in artefactual languages like writing and musical notation, which use media that are made by humans. Languages enable humans to receive and transmit variations in cultural information and resources. In this way, they provide the mechanism for cultural evolution. The human capacity for metarepresentation - thinking about how we think - accelerates cultural evolution, because it frees cultural information from the conceptual limitations of each individual language. I show how the concept of cultural evolution outlined in this book can help us to understand the complexity and diversity of human culture, relating my theory to a range of subjects including economics, linguistics, and developmental biology.

Cultural Evolution is also available in Chinese.


Read an extract from the book at the Cambridge University Press website, here.


"Cultural Evolution is a book of admirable breadth and complexity. I find it to be tremendously interesting and thought-provoking."
Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations - read the full review here.

"Why cultural evolution is cumulative in humans, but not in other species, remains a significant puzzle. Distin argues that our brain's ability to represent information to itself (so-called metarepresentation) enabled the accelerating increases in cultural complexity that are so distinctive of our species. She suggests that metarepresentation, first manifest in syntactic language, was later augmented by the storage and transmission of information through artifacts. Further, as stores of information, artifacts have significant advantages - they are stable, durable, and almost infinite in capacity - features that make it possible for cultural information to increase and diversify. Her approach brings fresh insights and novel perspectives to this difficult problem at the center of human evolution."
Robert Aunger, London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, author of The Electric Meme and editor of Darwinizing Culture: The status of memetics as a science

"In The Selfish Meme, Kate Distin brought conceptual clarity to a term that had been overly complicated. The advantages of the term 'meme' had been obscured - sometimes by the term's champions, but more often by those with pretheoretical agendas that made them hostile to the aspects of cognition (human irrationality) that the term highlighted. In The Selfish Meme, Distin restored the term's usefulness. In Cultural Evolution, Distin has a larger goal in mind - nothing less than a full-blown theory of the development of human knowledge. Given the Promethean goal of the book, it is remarkable how much the volume succeeds. Using various tools of modern cognitive science - from knowledge of the structure of language to the notion of metarepresentation - Distin gives us an expansive framework for understanding cultural evolution."
Keith E. Stanovich, University of Toronto, author of What Intelligence Tests Miss and The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

"The section on artefactual language presents a riveting history of how writing developed and eventually came to be used for representing langauge... There are a number of positive aspects of this book. Foremost is Distin's clear exposition of her ideas, evident in both this book and her earlier book on memetics; and, in the context of contributions incorporated from an impressive number of fields, this would seem no easy feat. The organization of the sections and chapters is very sensible, and a good number of the citations are from the very latest research in linguistics, memetics, and biological and cultural evolutionary theory."
Philosophy in Review - read the full review here.

Not a review, but an interesting discussion of Cultural Evolution's move away from memetic language, can be found at the OnFiction blog.

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