A theoretical investigation of the role of social transmission in evolution

Kevin N. Laland*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


This paper contains an investigation of the interaction between protocultural processes in animals, generated by social learning and the processes of biological evolution. It addresses the question of whether mechanisms of social learning and transmission can play an evolutionary role by allowing learned patterns of behavior to spread through animal populations, in the process changing the selection pressures acting on them. Simple models of social transmission and gene-meme coevolution are developed to investigate three hypotheses related to the role of social transmission in animal evolution. Simulations using the models suggest that social transmission would have to be particularly stable and be associated with estremely strong selection, if it were to result in the fixation of alleles. A more likely hypothesis is that social transmission might allow animals to respond adaptively to novelty in their environment, rendering a genetic response unnecessary, or only partially necessary. Socially transmitted traits appear to spread sufficiently rapidly, relative to changes in gene frequency, that it would be quite feasible for a socially transmitted response to an environmental change to occur, preempting a genetic response. Social transmission is probably more likely to slow down evolutionary rates than to speed them up through changing selection pressures. However, cultural and evolutionary processes are likely to interact in complex ways, and a "behavioral drive" effect cannot be ruled out.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-113
Number of pages27
JournalEthology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1992


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