Cultural evolutionary theory as a theory of forces
Cultural evolutionary theory has been alternatively compared to a theory of forces, such as Newtonian mechanics, or the kinetic theory of gases. In this article, I clarify the scope and significance of these metatheoretical characterisations. First, I discuss the kinetic analogy, which has been recently put forward by Tim Lewens. According to it, cultural evolutionary theory is grounded on a bottom-up methodology, which highlights the additive effects of social learning biases on the emergence of large-scale cultural phenomena. Lewens supports this claim by arguing that it is a consequence of cultural evolutionists’ widespread commitment to population thinking. While I concur with Lewens that cultural evolutionists often actually conceive cultural change in aggregative terms, I think that the kinetic framework does not properly account for the explanatory import of population-level descriptions in cultural evolutionary theory. Starting from a criticism of Lewens’ interpretation of population thinking, I argue that the explanatory role of such descriptions is best understood within a dynamical framework—that is, a framework according to which cultural evolutionary theory is a theory of forces. After having spelled out the main features of this alternative interpretation, I elucidate in which respects it helps to outline a more accurate characterisation of the overarching structure of cultural evolutionary theory.