Comparing Cultural Evolution & Cultural Relativism

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  • 0:00 Culture
  • 0:49 Cultural Evolution
  • 3:10 Cultural Relativism
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many theories that try to explain cultural development and change. In this lesson, you will explore two of them, cultural evolution and cultural relativism, and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Culture, culture everywhere. The world is full of cultures. You have a culture; I have a culture. Everyone does! At its most basic, culture can be described as the system of beliefs, actions, customs, arts, and knowledge of a specific group or society.

For something so important, it's actually pretty hard to nail down an exact definition. Sometimes it's one of those 'you-know-it-when-you-know-it' sort of things. Culture influences nearly every aspect of our lives, but there are different ways of understanding culture. And they all come back to this question: do we make culture, or does culture make us?

Cultural Evolution

We are living creatures. As living creatures, the leading scientific theory says that we evolved, adapted traits that gave us the best chance of survival, and got rid of those that didn't. Evolution proved to be a good model for explaining really complex systems, and at one point, researchers realized that these ideas could be applied to culture. Cultural evolution is the theory that human cultural change can be described through evolutionary models.

Basically, this boils down to two arguments. First, since all humans across the world have culture, the ability to create culture must be something we developed through biological evolution. Basically, the traits that encouraged complex social groups were selected over millions of years, which turned us from monkeys into humans and probably explains why soap operas are so popular. However, culture has such a strong influence on our lives that, while it may have originally come from evolution, it can also influence evolution. We learn culture, we teach it to each other, and we develop it, and this means we can choose to select the traits that are passed on.

The second argument is that culture, as a complex but interrelated system, can be studied like evolution. Many anthropologists have noted that the basic ideas of evolution are pretty useful for studying the ways that cultures adapt and change. Darwin described evolution as having three main components: variation, competition, and inheritance. Variation is the diversity within a species, competition is the natural selection of the best traits for survival, and inheritance is that which is passed from parent to offspring.

In the same way that these three things generate evolution, cultural change is also a result of the many variations within a culture, the competition and selection of the traits that best support the culture's survival, and traits that are passed from one generation to the next. Now, obviously, there are differences, but the basic idea is the same, so it makes a useful framework for studying culture and cultural change as one complex, changing system.

Cultural Relativism

Cultural evolution is all about trying to understand culture from the perspective of, well, evolution. But that's not the only way to think about culture. Ideas like cultural evolution have been interpreted at various points to mean that some cultures are more evolved, or naturally better than others. Just to be clear, modern theories of cultural evolution do not support this, but it was unfortunately the case for a little while. But, eventually people realized that you can't go around claiming that your culture is more evolved, so they came up with the idea of cultural relativism, the theory that cultures can only be understood in their own terms.

So, what does this mean? Basically, if I'm from culture A, I can't look at people from culture B and judge them by my own cultural standards. Yes, eating ice cubes might be strange in my culture, but that doesn't mean that it is inherently wrong, weird, or bad. So, my culture is not naturally better.

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