Not by transmission alone: the role of invention in cultural evolution

Susan Perry, Alecia Carter, Marco Smolla, Erol Akçay, Sabine Noebel, Jacob Foster, and Susan Healy


Innovation—the combination of invention and social learning—can empower species to invade new niches via cultural adaptation. Social learning has typically been regarded as the fundamental driver for the emergence of traditions and thus culture. Consequently, invention has been relatively understudied outside the human lineage—despite being the source of new traditions. This neglect leaves basic questions unanswered: what factors promote the creation of new ideas and practices? What affects their spread or loss? We critically review the existing literature, focusing on four levels of investigation: traits (what sorts of behaviours are easiest to invent?), individuals (what factors make some individuals more likely to be inventors?), ecological contexts (what aspects of the environment make invention or transmission more likely?), and populations (what features of relationships and societies promote the rise and spread of new inventions?). We aim to inspire new research by highlighting theoretical and empirical gaps in the study of innovation, focusing primarily on inventions in non-humans. Understanding the role of invention and innovation in the history of life requires a well-developed theoretical framework (which embraces cognitive processes) and a taxonomically broad, cross-species dataset that explicitly investigates inventions and their transmission. We outline such an agenda here.


creativity; cultural evolution; individual differences; innovation, invention;

Published in

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 376, n. 1828, July 2021