Bridging cultural gaps: scholars promote interdisciplinary studies in human cultural evolution

Within the blink of an eye on a geological timescale, humans advanced from using basic stone tools to examining the rocks on Mars; however, our exact evolutionary path and the relative importance of genetic and cultural evolution remain a mystery. Our cultural capacities—to create new ideas, to communicate and learn from one another, and to form vast social networks—together make us uniquely human, but the origins, the mechanisms, and the evolutionary impact of these capacities remain unknown.

Evolutionary biology is at an exciting juncture. Much important research has focused on the human genome as the key to unlocking knowledge about our evolutionary history. Recently, however, researchers have begun to recognize that understanding non-genetic inheritance, including culture, ecology, the microbiome, and regulation of gene expression, is fundamental to fully comprehending evolution. The evolutionary effects of culture, learning, and language have generated heated and dynamic debate and new interdisciplinary studies of human evolution. Now more than ever it is important to focus on the dynamics of cultural inheritance at different temporal and spatial scales, to uncover the underlying mechanisms that drive these dynamics, and to shed light on their implications for our current theory of evolution as well as for our interpretation and predictions regarding human behavior.

Many academic disciplines study human behavior and culture—anthropology, biology, psychology, computer science, ecology, economics, cognitive science, and archaeology, to name a few—often using different vocabularies. Two Stanford researchers, postdoctoral fellow Oren Kolodny and Professor Marc Feldman along with former Stanford postdoc Nicole Creanza, thought that researchers in these different fields could learn from one another to shed new light on human cultural evolution.

Their efforts to promote interdisciplinary work in human cultural evolution has led to a new theme issue in the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. In this special issue, Kolodny, Creanza, and Feldman aimed to combine perspectives from diverse fields to help elucidate the cultural forces affecting human evolution. The outcome is an interdisciplinary collection of research on the roles that culture plays in shaping the course of human evolution, exploring the mechanisms of cultural evolution from their cognitive underpinnings in individuals, through the behavioral ecology of learning from others, to the dynamics of transmission at the level of individuals and populations.

The issue also includes individual contributions authored by Kolodny, Feldman, Creanza, and co-authors, on the evolution of the human capacity for language, on linguistic cultural origins of the Creole language Sranan, and on the links between heritability, genes, and culture.

The sixteen new scientific publications in this issue were shaped by an international workshop entitled “New Perspectives in Cultural Evolution,” held at Stanford University in July 2016, supported by the John Templeton Fund. This workshop brought together researchers from multiple fields from different universities. With special focus on open discussions in large and small groups, participants in the workshop proposed new ways to synthesize fields, tackled current controversies, and highlighted important unanswered questions, leading to the new research published in the theme issue.

This research was supported by the John Templeton Foundation and the Stanford University Center for Computational, Evolutionary, and Human Genomics.


Table of contents when it goes live:


Kolodny O, Feldman MW, Creanza N (2018). Bridging cultural gaps: the interdisciplinary nature of cultural evolution. In press. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: 20170413.

Kolodny O, Feldman MW, Creanza N (2018). Integrative studies of cultural evolution: crossing disciplinary boundaries to produce new insights. In press. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: 20170048.

Feldman MW, Ramachandran S (2018). Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture. In press. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: 20170064.

Kolodny O, Edelman S (2018). The evolution of the capacity for language: the ecological context and adaptive value of a process of cognitive hijacking. In press. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: 20170052.

Sherriah AC, Devonish H, Thomas EAC, Creanza N (2018). Using features of a Creole language to reconstruct population history and cultural evolution: tracing the English origins of Sranan (2018). In press. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: 20170055.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Oren Kolodny tel: 650-665-3296 email:, Marcus Feldman tel: 650-725-1867; e-mail:

Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Nicole Creanza tel: 407-252-8361 e-mail:

Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

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