Cultural evolution really is a growing field. So there.
Fiona Jordan
Anthropology, UCL

It is extremely useful to be able to preface one’s grant application or paper introduction with a reference to the vibrant state of research in the field of cultural evolution. Of course, the truth of that sentiment has, until now, been more what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—a gut feeling of what is right—rather than being based on any empirical research. Fret no more, your hyperbolic claims are now statistically validated. Here I present the results of an arduous literature search cataloguing the state of the science over the last 30 years. It’s true: cultural evolution is the next big thing.

I used the search term “cultural evolution” in the ISI Web of Science bibliographic database for the period 1975-2005.  This 30-year period encompasses the publication of three major volumes [see references] applying evolutionary theory to culture and extends back five years previously for comparison. Also, I was born in 1975 and it seemed fortuitous. For each year, I took the total number of records containing the search term and plotted them against the year. Cumulative totals were then calculated.


Figure 1 

Figure 2
Instances of the keyword phrase “cultural evolution” clearly increase dramatically over time, accelerating in the last ten years. We may assume that the number of published works in the field is actually greater than the results suggest, as some studies might not contain that particular keyword but do meet the remit of cultural evolutionary research. A more rigorous approach would compare the citation of a neutral keyword with the trend presented here, but life is too short for that sort of malarkey.


Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Monographs in Population Biology 16.

Lumsden, C. J. & Wilson, E. O. (1981). Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


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