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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

CES Online Learning Tutorials

Foundations of Cultural Evolution – A Question + Tool Approach

Silk road image. This online guide introduces the body of formal theory used in the study of cultural evolution. Through interactive computer simulations, participants will experience the basic machinery of dynamic models and tour key results from topics including social learning strategies, transmission pathways, cumulative culture, cooperation, group selection, and socio-political evolution.

Each research question is accompanied with a reference to an analytical tool. As the modules build from techniques found in prior modules, the novice should approach these topics in the order below. To begin, simply click on your first topic.

  1. Why learn from others? A graphical approach to frequency-dependent fitness.
  2. Should learning be directed toward specific individuals? Building recursions for evolutionary simulation.
  3. Should cultural traits be adopted because of their prevalence? Introducing more complex conditions in your evolutionary simulation.
  4. Does culture have its own dynamics? Tables and transition matrices.
  5. Does learning change over the life cycle? Life cycles in evolutionary models.
  6. What is learned from others? Introducing data into your evolutionary model.
  7. How do innovations spread? How to change the shape of diffusion curves.
  8. How adaptable are cultural species? Difference equations and conditions of increase.
  9. Does selection work on groups? Selection operating on multiple evolutionary stable strategies.
  10. Does culture influence prosociality? Mechanisms of group selection.
  11. Do socio-political cultural systems evolve? Cyclic dynamics in cultural evolution.

A webinar by Adrian Bell associated with this module is available in the DySoC/NIMBioS 2020 Webinar Series on Cultural Evolution: Cultural evolution in the field.

Module Designer

Adrian Viliami Bell, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah

There are always improvements to be made with any new course, so please email your thoughts and suggestions to the module's creator, Adrian Viliami Bell, at [email protected].


Foundations of Cultural Evolution is one of a series of online teaching modules sponsored by the Cultural Evolution Society and the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity through the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation.

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