CES logo.

The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Foundations of Cultural Evolution

Lecture 10: Does culture influence prosociality?

Good Samaritan image.

Mechanisms of group selection

Being kind, generous, and charitable to strangers at the expense of individual welfare is an evolutionary puzzle. What selective mechanisms are there that promote self-sacrifice among strangers?

Fortunately over the last half-century a number of cogent explanations have been formulated revolving around genetic, cultural, and behavioral structure in populations. Unfortunately, the explanations derive from models that give different and perhaps competing accounts for the same observation. Clarity arrived when George Price derived a general-purpose formulation of evolution that made the mechanisms and their assumptions clear. This module is about this formulation: the Price equation.

Click here to begin.

References cited

Bell, A. V., Richerson, P. J., & McElreath, R. (2009). Culture rather than genes provides greater scope for the evolution of large-scale human prosociality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(42), 17671-17674.

Handley, C. and Mathew, S. Human large-scale cooperation as a product of competition between cultural groups. Nature Communications 11, 702 (2020).

Price, G. R. (1970). Selection and covariance. Nature, 227(5257), 520-521.

McElreath, R., & Boyd, R. (2008). Mathematical models of social evolution: A guide for the perplexed. University of Chicago Press.

Additional readings about cultural group selection

Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C. M., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (2020). Beyond Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance. Psychological Science.

Richerson, P., Baldini, R., Bell, A. V., Demps, K., Frost, K., Hillis, V., ... & Ross, C. (2016). Cultural group selection plays an essential role in explaining human cooperation: A sketch of the evidence. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39.

Top of page

CES logo.
Templeton logo.
DySoC logo.