The Acceleration of Cultural Change

The Acceleration of Cultural Change

From Ancestors to Algorithms

MIT Press, 2017 more...

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A small theater. Hand axes. iPhones. Such fascinating or mundane objects exemplify “cultural transmission” in R. Alexander Bentley and Michael J. O’Brien’s pleasant, quirky thesis. They engagingly discuss a range of topics, from orcas to oral history, to detail, illustrate and explain cultural transmission. Their clear writing is evocative as they outline the forces shaping cultural change in areas as distinct as beer and prehistoric projectiles. The way they connect ideas and historical progression leads to fascinating insights on change, culture and modern challenges.


Throughout history, humans shared and passed down culture, which blends the new and the familiar.

Richard Dawkins popularized the term “meme” in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. This term for an idea that spreads throughout culture in an almost viral fashion itself spread throughout the culture, mutating somewhat along the way. Memes fit the emerging internet perfectly. Humans always passed culture down through the generations. In the past, transmission moved more slowly and was more labor intensive, but today it happens much more quickly.

People talk, sing, share and continually communicate, transmitting and sharing culture as a defining part of human identity. The human brain evolved to be interactive and social, which is one reason why it’s so large compared with human body size. This is evolutionarily costly – it makes childbirth harder – and thus must carry a balancing evolutionary benefit. That benefit is “social cooperation,” which helps groups become more likely to survive. Humans pass along more information than other primate species.

Cooperation among humans started...

About the Authors

R. Alexander Bentley, PhD, leads the anthropology department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Michael J. O’Brien, PhD, is provost and history professor at Texas A&M University–San Antonio.

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