The transition from animal to human culture – simulating the social protocell hypothesis
Artikel i vetenskaplig tidskrift, 2023

The origin of human cumulative culture is commonly envisioned as the appearance (some 2.0-2.5 million years ago) of a capacity to faithfully copy the know-how that underpins socially learned traditions. While certainly plausible, this story faces a steep 'startup problem'. For example, it presumes that ape-like early Homo possessed specialized cognitive capabilities for faithful know-how copying and that early toolmaking actually required such a capacity. The social protocell hypothesis provides a leaner story, where cumulative culture may have originated even earlier-as cumulative systems of non-cumulative traditions ('institutions' and 'cultural lifestyles'), via an emergent group-level channel of cultural inheritance. This channel emerges as a side-effect of a specific but in itself unremarkable suite of social group behaviours. It is independent of faithful know-how copying, and an ancestral version is argued to persist in Pan today. Hominin cultural lifestyles would thereby have gained in complexity and sophistication, eventually becoming independent units of selection (socionts) via a cultural evolutionary transition in individuality, abstractly similar to the origin of early cells. We here explore this hypothesis by simulating its basic premises. The model produces the expected behaviour and reveals several additional and non-trivial phenomena as fodder for future work. This article is part of the theme issue 'Human socio-cultural evolution in light of evolutionary transitions'.

Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality


Human evolution

social protocell

Cultural evolution

Human culture

Human origins


Claes Andersson

Chalmers, Rymd-, geo- och miljövetenskap, Fysisk resursteori

Tamás Czárán

Centre for Ecological Research

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

0962-8436 (ISSN) 1471-2970 (eISSN)

Vol. 378 1872 20210416



Bioinformatik (beräkningsbiologi)



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