Human cumulative culture and the exploitation of natural phenomena

Maxime Derex


Cumulative cultural evolution (CCE)—defined as the process by which beneficial modifications are culturally transmitted and progressively accumulated over time—has long been argued to underlie the unparalleled diversity and complexity of human culture. In this paper, I argue that not just any kind of cultural accumulation will give rise to human-like culture. Rather, I suggest that human CCE depends on the gradual exploitation of natural phenomena, which are features of our environment that, through the laws of physics, chemistry or biology, generate reliable effects which can be exploited for a purpose. I argue that CCE comprises two distinct processes: optimizing cultural traits that exploit a given set of natural phenomena (Type I CCE) and expanding the set of natural phenomena we exploit (Type II CCE). I argue that the most critical features of human CCE, including its open-ended dynamic, stems from Type II CCE. Throughout the paper, I contrast the two processes and discuss their respective socio-cognitive requirements.

Published in

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 377, n. 1843, January 2022