Institutions as mechanisms of cultural evolution : Prospects of the epidemiological approach

TitleInstitutions as mechanisms of cultural evolution : Prospects of the epidemiological approach
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsHeintz, C.
Journal titleBiological Theory

Studying institutions as part of the research on cultural evolution prompts us to analyze one very important mechanism of cultural evolution: institutions do distribute cultural variants in the population. Also, it enables relating current research on cultural evolution to some more traditional social sciences: institutions, often seen as macro-social entities, are analyzed in terms of their constitutive micro-phenomena. This article presents Sperber's characterization of institutions, and then gives some hints about the set of phenomena to which it applies. Culture evolves through the advent of cognitive causal chains, which span across individuals and their environment, and which distribute mental representations and public production in the population and its habitat. Institutions are characterized by the specific causal chains that distribute representations. These chains include representations that cause the recurrence of a series of events and thus regulate the distribution of a set of representations to which they themselves belong. Saying that some cultural phenomenon is an institution is, in this theoretical framework, explaining that some representations that are part of the cultural phenomenon cause it to endure.

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Department of Philosophy