What is Biocultural Evolution?

(Image Credits: DNA and Persian Tapestry images from Wikimedia Commons)
by Aaron Jonas Stutz

“Biocultural evolution” is a really useful phrase for anthropologists. Many of us agree that the term captures something fundamental about humanity’s identity, about our place in the world. The phrase efficiently points toward the simultaneous tension and intimate proximity between our biological evolutionary origins and inheritance, on the one hand, and our symbolically structured, socially entangled, and technologically shaped lives, on the other.

Indeed, biocultural evolution is a staple term that college students learn in introductory anthropology courses. It gives a thematic focus to exploring the evidence for how prehistoric culture, technology, population migrations, and interbreeding patterns contributed to the rise of sickle cell anemia in Central and West African populations … as a biological adaptation to resist malaria infection! Students who have taken Anthro 101 or an Introduction to Physical/Biological Anthropology course will find the concept–and very possibly the example I just mentioned–familiar. When we see one of the few really clearly documented examples of biocultural evolution, we immediately get a more profound appreciation about how we shape our own biology, perhaps just as much as it shapes us.

The phrase is not problem-free. From the beginning, there has been–and there certainly remains–a conceptual imbalance between the concept’s biological and cultural dimensions. The evolutionary theory foundation for understanding biological change in populations enjoys a solid disciplinary history, with both healthy debates and advancing scientific knowledge. However, when it comes to culture and its connection to biology, moments of clarity tend to be obscured by clouds of intellectual confusion and disagreement. Thus, a major point of departure for this blog is consideration and clarification of the culture concept and the phenomenon of culture’s evolutionary emergence as a major factor–interlinked with biology–in shaping human diversity.