Culture and evolvability: a brief archaeological perspective

Michael J. O’Brien*, Kevin N. Lala

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Evolvability refers to the capacity, ability, or potential of an organism to generate heritable variation. Under this view, much extragenetic inheritance is regarded not as noise, fine-tuning, or a luxury add-on to genetic inheritance but as an essential tool for short-term adaptation. With respect to humans, the cultural contribution to evolvability is key to understanding evolution. In many instances, cultural inheritance directs genetic inheritance, not the other way around. Culture, being relatively free from the genetic leash, can produce change that genetic inheritance cannot. Soft inheritance—the view that heredity can be changed by an organism’s experiences—has been disdained for over a century, but in light of the recent outpouring of data demonstrating extragenetic inheritance, defining evolution only in terms of genetic change ignores half the adaptive process, discarding much of what is interesting and relevant. Archaeologists can play a key role in evolvability research, given their contributions to topics such as niche construction, modularity, mosaic evolution, and developmental bias.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1079-1108
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number4
Early online date1 Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • Developmental bias
  • Evolvability
  • Exploratory mechanisms
  • Extended evolutionary synthesis
  • Modularity
  • Mosaic evolution
  • Niche construction


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