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Evolutionary Psychology: Cognition and Culture Essay

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Updated: May 20th, 2020


All cognitive processes occur in an individual’s mind. People’s minds work under various contexts in terms of cultures, religion, ethnicity, and environments among others. Therefore, effective understanding of thought processes require a thorough comprehension of culture and evolution within a given domain like religion, cultural transmission, language and thought, self and identity, and social kind among others.

Cognition is intricate, but has high-levels of functional organisation. In this context, scholars have proposed the evolution theory to account for complex cognitive processes. Developmental processes have effects on an individual’s cognitive development. This implies that evolution also affects cognitive developments of individuals. In this context, we can conclude that evolutionary and development processes have effects on cognition development of an individual. Therefore, the best approach of understanding cognitive processes should involve several areas of studies like comparative studies, ecological aspects, religious accounts, and other development studies (Heyes, 2012).

It is crucial to understand the role of evolution in the production of creatures with developed minds. Current studies on these issues reflect new thinking based evidenced-based theory with reference to new modes of cognition that have evolved with human beings. In this context, the role of evolutionary psychology also is paramount. Evolutionary psychology has shown us the need to “integrate cognitive science with evolutionary biology in order to explain not only how brains and behaviour have evolved, but also the evolution of the ‘middle man’—the cognitive processes, often characterized as computational software, which are instantiated by the brain and control behaviour” (Heyes, 2012).

Based on such observations, this essay concurs with the statement that cognition is constrained and directed by both evolutionary and cultural processes with references to the domain of religion and cultural transmission.


Based on the cognitive scientific argument, religion has many technical orders of behaviours, which engage emotions, learning, and memory. We have to understand that religion has various components from various cultures. Religious aspects are subject to environmental inputs, which influence cultural outcomes. It is also important to recognise that religion relies on memory as it emerges within the context of evolution with the basis of social connections (Boyer, 2001).

Scientists have investigated religious aspects from laboratories by using drugs and other scientific experiments to gauge changes within the body when an individual engages in prayer, mediation, or trance. Currently, researchers have embarked on brain scanning techniques in order to identify a specific part of the brain that bears religious experiences (Persinger, 1987). Still, science has also explored cognitive representation and propagation of supernatural conceptions. The main area of concentration has been on ideas of spirits and gods.

The supposed counter-intuitive agents depend on different elements of human minds for conceptualisation. Evolution plays significant roles in conceptualisation of counter-intuitive agents. In this process, we look at the agent of the detection system, which identifies supposed danger in the environment. The theory of the mind allows us to replicate other individuals’ emotions and thoughts. The moral intuitions enhance social connections and effective collaboration. Scholars concur that the idea of counter-intuitive agents has effects on cognitive capacities (Boyer, 2001; Pyysiäinen, 2003).

Some studies have focused on rituals within the framework of memory. They note that rituals help in “memorisation and propagation of religious concepts and traditions” (Lawson and McCauley, 1990). Religions exist in various cultures in which they have various connections to different spheres of the human life. Among the Romans, religion related to issues about festivals and cults. Philosophers concentrated on matters about life while poets looked at issues about gods. In ancient Judaism, religion focused on matters related to cult, morality, history, and other world affairs. Finally, the Western modernity religion focuses on moral issues and cult.

Cognitive science concentrates on cross-cultural aspects of behaviour patterns. Some studies have concluded that we can understand cultural and individual variations within the context of universal building blocks (Martin, 2005). Scholars like Whitehouse and Martin have looked at the relevance of cognitive science to history within the sphere of religion (Martin, 2005; Whitehouse, 2005). Cognitive science of religion theory looks at psychological factors, which enhance the spread of religious ideas over a given period (Boyer, 2001). Atran expounds that simple counter intuitive beliefs have high abilities to attract attention, enhance memory, and improve communication (Atran, 2002). As a result, religious beliefs mainly emanate from such simple counter-intuitive beliefs.

This explains why religious beliefs have high rates of distribution and repetition within time and groups. However, effective understanding of religion requires a thorough knowledge of cognitive psychology. In this context, cognitive psychology aids in understanding of the production of beliefs and factors that constraint contents, such as the universal elements of cognitive conditions. Whitehouse has attempted to explain this idea by his theory of modes of religiosity in which he borrows elements of psychology based on historical perspectives (Whitehouse, 2004). He provides two different ways by which we can recall religious beliefs. These include episodic memory (elements we can see and feel) and semantic memory (memory based on given contents).

Therefore, we can understand religious beliefs by observing their various cognitive types of representations, which are semantic or episodic memories. However, generation and transmission of these different forms of cognitive representations need diverse methods. For instance, episodic memories depend on rituals that provide an account of outstanding memories from arousal of emotions. This represents the imagistic form of religiosity. On the other hand, semantic memories use precise and cyclic teaching methods for generating and transmitting religious cognitive elements.

Therefore, semantic memories account for the doctrinal form of religiosity. Whitehouse notes that these two forms of production and transmission are in any religion. However, religion tends to promote one over the other. According to Martin, the cognitive theory of cultural transmission predicts “a divergence of transmission trajectories over time” (Martin, 2005). The imagistic form of religiosity expresses cognitive transmission of religious ideas through emotions, which enhance feelings of solidarity among participants. Conversely, the doctrinal form of religiosity promotes cognitive representations based on institutions, which enhance social hierarchy in society.

Cultural Transmission

Scholars concur that culture relies on social elements for transmission. In this context, social transmissions of cultures have provided suitable areas to explain the relationship among cognition, evolution, and culture.

Memes and cultural epidemiology

Scholars concur that cultures are dynamic due to evolution. Researchers have focused on cultural dynamism under cultural evolution studies. They have also determined cultural changes in relation to biological transformations. In this context, culture has traits that emerge and spread to certain extents. Therefore, research works on cultural evolution focuses on “cultural traits that can pass from one generation to the next” (Sperber, 2001).

Biological evolution on natural selection has helped in providing explanations for cultural evolution based on the argument that “traits that increase fitness are more likely than others to get passed on from one generation to the next” (Heyes, 2012). The modern synthesis theory supports this observation by noting that traits rely on genetic modes of transmissions among generations. These traits are what Richard Dawkins referred to as cultural memes to reflect imitation inherent in cultural transmissions.

However, authors like Atran and Sperber have rejected the meme idea by stating that generic and cultural transmissions have significant differences (Atran, 2002; Sperber, 2001). Under natural selection, “children get their genes from parents vertically” (Sperber, 2001). On the other hand, cultural traits spread laterally among peers, children, and parents through various modes of communications, including technology. Cultural traits are diverse based on cultural orientations. It is also necessary to note that even bad cultural traits may spread to others. This is because people copy cultural traits imperfectly and may subject them to changes during transmission. These scholars reject the idea of cultural meme.

Boyer (2001) used this notion on the spread of religious beliefs across cultures. However, he recognises variations that exist, which enhance memory and the spread of such cultures.

Sperber introduces a new view to evolutionary psychology. In this view, he notes that human cognition has a crucial role in cultural evolution (Sperber, 2001). In this respect, Godfrey-Smith has offered three different forms of cultural evolution (Godfrey-Smith, 2012). The author classifies Darwinian Theory as micro-level. At the micro-level, transformation results from differential copying of cultural traits. He classifies other categories as cumulative cultural adaptation (meso) and phylogenetic (macro), which represent significant levels of variations during cultural adaption at the micro-level. Cumulative cultural represents a slow method of cultural changes. The Darwinian imitation approach provides an account of cultural differences in a given population over a specific period. On the other hand, cumulative cultural adaptation focuses on origins and the invention of cultural artefacts. According to Godfrey-Smith, every culture needs a different cognitive system for evolution. Cumulative cultural adaptation should provide best results in comparison to results of individual members of a group. These processes are metacognitive as Frith shows (Frith, 2012).

Some scholars hold that the progressive improvement of cultural traits or cumulative cultural evolution needs cultural variants in order to pass over to many cultural groups over time with limited modification (Lewis and Laland, 2012). As a result, such longevity and minimal modification can preserve cultural traits among generations for long. Lewis and Laland express the importance of cultural evolution in cognitive processes as they sustain cultural transmission.

Most evolutionary scholars who support the dominance of cultural evolution hold that genetic evolution is responsible for the main cognitive processes that facilitate cultural inheritance. However, Heyes provide a different view on this observation by relying on results from different areas like cognitive neuroscience, comparative studies, and developmental psychology. She notes that development of “imitation and other processes of social learning is remarkably similar to the development of literacy and that the cognitive processes that enable cultural inheritances are themselves culturally inherited” (Heyes, 2012).

Cultural evolution remains a major factor that influences human lives. However, there are cases in which cultural evolution has not solved problems in human cognition due to limitations from genetic evolution. Some scholars have concluded that constraints on “time and social cognition, shared with other primates, currently prevent us from using social-networking sites (such as Facebook) to expand the range of people with whom we have enriching social relationships” (Dunbar, 2012).

Under cultural transmission, members of different groups transfer traits from one group to another. However, this can only take place when there are learning processes in which members of different groups learn from other groups. In this context, traditional modes of learning, such as “associative learning, conditioning, and trial and error through reinforcement” (Martin, 2005), cannot adequately explain social learning. This is because a person may engage in certain behaviours in front of others, but other parties may fail to imitate such behaviours. Still, there are no guarantees that if one witnesses a different behaviour, then the behaviour will lead to conditioning.

This is because witnessing the behaviour is not a prerequisite for reinforcing the same behaviour. However, conditioning has been an effective method in social transmission. Moreover, conditioning also depends on imitation of what the other party has watched or learned. This suggests that cultural transmission depends on learning mechanism, which exceeds what an individual has learned or observed. Therefore, an individual must strive to exceed the model he has copied. In other words, cultural transmission thrives on imitation.

Individuals strive to copy two things from models they observe. These are the end and the means. Learning emulation (end) reflects an individual’s effort to copy the outcome. Such outcomes may be difficult to achieve because they require knowledge of the means. However, when an individual performs an act he has watched, he then engages in imitation. Imitation has enhanced social transmission because human beings are good at imitation. Some scholars have concluded that human beings have automatic facial expressions and gestures instantly after birth. These acts of imitation are mainly common in children who have abilities to imitate complex ways of performing tasks.

Human beings’ abilities to imitate others have developed their social learning capabilities in comparison to other species. Conversely, other species like apes have the ability of emulation rather than imitation. However, apes also copy actions from others, but humans exceed apes’ abilities to imitate behaviours. This implies that apes also have abilities to learn. If we can define cultures based on behaviours and practices of a group, then we can conclude that even apes also have their cultures. Other studies have also shown that chimpanzees and dolphins have abilities to imitate others.

Scholars have concluded that human cultural transmission usually takes place because of imitation. However, humans fail to imitate every action they observe. People tend to imitate certain behaviours more than other behaviours they observe. Thus, there is bias in the extent of imitating certain behaviours.

Boyer and other researchers have classified biases into two groups. However, imitation depends on various factors such contents. Individuals tend to imitate behaviours based on their effects on them. In some cases, imitation relates to context. This explains why we have context biases. Context bias reflects individual’s tendencies of imitating certain social traits based on people who are transmitting them instead of contexts of transmissions. Context bias also has “two forms based on ‘who’ and frequency of the trait” (Boyer, 2001).

Conformity is one of the context biases. Social psychologists have shown that individuals tend to imitate behaviours of others in a social group. Imitating most people in a group enhances cultural unity and communication. It also promotes group selection. This process enhances survival of a group because of the group’s overall fitness. It is difficult to account for group selection based on biological evolution. This is because genetic mutations are in individuals. Therefore, gene mutations have no relationships with group traits.

Conformity enables cultural traits to broaden with a group. As a result, it overcomes limitations from gene mutations. However, it also difficult for most people to imitate only the majority. Therefore, we can say that conformity bias also has opposing side, which is nonconformity. People can also copy rare behaviours, which can lead to “high frequencies of spreading because of novelty” (Boyer, 2001). For instance, people have tendencies to imitate street cultures. Such cultures may spread fast because of their uniqueness. Later, they may appeal to many people because of conformity.

Some evolutionary psychologists maintain that we can “explain cultural variations from a nativist framework despite the existing inconsistent in groups” (Boyer, 2001). This is because different groups of people have diverse cultural traits. These traits arise from customs and psychological state of individuals. Some of these variations may not need social explanations. This is why we have evoked culture. Evoked culture reflects the idea that variations in physical environments may result into “variations in how various social groups behave and think” (Boyer, 2001). Individuals may have certain traits that can make them act in accordance with requirements of the environment in which they are. This demonstrates human’s ability of adaptation to various situations. For instance, people tend to be belligerent in a culture where majorities face scarcity of resources. On the other hand, people who live in abundance of resources are often docile. Such variations may cause constraints in behaviours of individuals.


Evolutionary psychology provides new ideas on evolution and human cognition within a cultural sphere. We can understand evolutionary psychology from historical perspective based on historical facts because cultures evolve over time. From evolutionary psychology, we can also understand cultural evolution and its effects on creating slow and incremental transformation. From these perspectives, we can conclude that human beings have unique abilities and various cognitive developmental mechanisms instead of cognitive modules.

We have a number of ways to relate evolution and religion. Scholars have not been able to provide evolutionary advantages of religions. It is the idea of cultural evolution that makes the situation complex. Genetic compositions of different people have serious constraints on how individuals think. We have to note that religion and culture are general. Therefore, past evolutionary activities have also constrained religion. It may be possible to conduct cross-species comparative studies in order to identify evolutionary aspects of religious behaviours and comprehend religious adaptive roles. We can relate culture and evolution in two ways. First, culture is a part of human gene and exposures to environments enable us to realise cultures. Second, communication plays a significant role in cultural transmission. In this respect, we have a constant cultural evolution that depends on selective forces. We can understand such selective forces by using the concept of genetic evolution.

Evolutionary activities enable us to understand religious behaviours. Still, we can understand cultural and religion diversities if we create a suitable model of cultural selection (Lawson and McCauley, 1990). Therefore, cognitive is constrained and directed by both evolutionary and cultural processes.

Reference List

Atran, S 2002, In gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion, Oxford University Press, New York.

Boyer, P 2001, Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought, Basic Books, New York.

Dunbar, R 2012, ‘Social cognition on the Internet: testing constraints on social network size’, Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 367, pp. 2192–2201.

Frith, C 2012, ‘The role of metacognition in human social interactions’, Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 367, pp. 2213–2223.

Godfrey-Smith, P 2012, ‘Darwinism and cultural change’, Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 367, pp. 2160–2170.

Heyes, C 2012, ‘New thinking: the evolution of human cognition’, Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 367, no. 1599, pp. 2091-2096.

Lawson, T and McCauley, N 1990, Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lewis, H and Laland, N 2012, ‘Transmission fidelity is the key to the build-up of cumulative culture’, Journal of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol. 367, pp. 2171–2180.

Martin, L 2005, ‘Introduction: Imagistic traditions in the Graeco-Roman world’, Historical Reflection, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 297-307.

Persinger, M 1987, Neuropsychological bases of God beliefs, Praeger, New York.

Pyysiäinen, I 2003, How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion, Brill, Michigan.

Sperber, D 2001, “An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture”, in R Aunger (ed), Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 163–173.

Whitehouse, H 2005, ‘Cognitive historiography: when science meets art’, Historical Reflections, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 307-318.

Whitehouse, H 2004, Modes of religiosity: A cognitive theory of religious transmission, AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

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