While the movement toward an evolutionary perspective on human culture has been gaining traction over the past decade, the field of cultural evolution is a divided house. The disagreements – mainly between two factions – hinge on a working definition of culture itself and how cultural information is transmitted.

In an effort to bridge those differences, SFI External Professor Daniel Dennett held a working group, “Perspectives on Cultural Evolution,” at SFI in May. The group comprised many of the field’s leading theorists and experimentalists – including SFI Cowan Chair Rob Boyd.

Summaries of the meeting written by each participant are posted here.

That the two rival camps emerged from the working group more in agreement than in disagreement Dennett and Boyd attribute to the collaborative spirit of SFI in general, to the fact that the gathering focused more on common cause, and to Dennett’s unusual methodology.

After having participants send in what they’d written, Dennett asked them to rank whose work they’d like to introduce. “People usually read someone else’s work with an antagonistic approach,” he explains. “But here, they had to present someone else’s work to that person. It brings out the best in people.”

Boyd’s three-member camp described the work of a group led by Dan Sperber. “We came away with a deeper appreciation of what they are trying to say – and the reverse was true as well,” says Boyd.

Summaries of the meeting written by each participant are posted here.

“Cultural evolution may still be seen as being divided into camps,” said Dennett. “But from this point forward, they’ll also be seen as having much more in common than people had realized.”