Cultural group selection and human cooperation: a conceptual and empirical review

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Cultural group selection has been proposed as an explanation for humans’ highly cooperative nature. This theory argues that social learning mechanisms, combined with rewards and punishment, can stabilise any group behaviour, cooperative or not. Equilibrium selection can then operate, resulting in cooperative groups outcompeting less-cooperative groups. This process may explain the widespread cooperation between non-kin observed in humans, which is sometimes claimed to be altruistic. This review explores the assumptions of cultural group selection to assess whether it provides a convincing explanation for human cooperation. Although competition between cultural groups certainly occurs, it is unclear whether this process depends on specific social learning mechanisms (e.g. conformism) or a norm psychology (to indiscriminately punish norm-violators) to stabilise groups at different equilibria as proposed by existing cultural group selection models. Rather than unquestioningly adopt group norms and institutions, individuals and groups appear to evaluate, design and shape them for self-interested reasons (where possible). As individual fitness is frequently tied to group fitness, this often coincides with constructing group-beneficial norms and institutions, especially when groups are in conflict. While culture is a vital component underlying our species’ success, the extent to which current conceptions of cultural group selection reflect human cooperative evolution remains unclear.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2
Number of pages29
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
Early online date7 Feb 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Feb 2020


  • Cultural group selection
  • Copoeration
  • Culture
  • Norm psychology
  • Institutions
  • Altruism


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