Did Human Culture Emerge in a Cultural Evolutionary Transition in Individuality?
Journal article, 2021

Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality (ETI) have been responsible for the major transitions in levels of selection and individuality in natural history, such as the origins of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, and eusocial insects. The integrated hierarchical organization of life thereby emerged as groups of individuals repeatedly evolved into new and more complex kinds of individuals. The Social Protocell Hypothesis (SPH) proposes that the integrated hierarchical organization of human culture can also be understood as the outcome of an ETI—one that produced a “cultural organism” (a “sociont”) from a substrate of socially learned traditions that were contained in growing and dividing social communities. The SPH predicts that a threshold degree of evolutionary individuality would have been achieved by 2.0–2.5 Mya, followed by an increasing degree of evolutionary individuality as the ETI unfolded. We here assess the SPH by applying a battery of criteria—developed to assess evolutionary individuality in biological units—to cultural units across the evolutionary history of Homo. We find an increasing agreement with these criteria, which buttresses the claim that an ETI occurred in the cultural realm.


Cultural group selection

Human evolution

Evolutionary transitions in individuality

Cultural evolution

Social protocell


Dinah R. Davison

University of Arizona

Claes Andersson

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Richard E. Michod

University of Arizona

Steven L. Kuhn

University of Arizona

Biological Theory

15555542 (ISSN) 15555550 (eISSN)

Vol. 16 4 213-236

Subject Categories

Evolutionary Biology




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4/5/2022 5