Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Cumulative cultural evolution is what 'makes us odd'; our capacity to learn facts and techniques from others, and to refine them over generations, plays a major role in making human minds and lives radically different from those of other animals. In this article, I discuss cognitive processes that are known collectively as 'cultural learning' because they enable cumulative cultural evolution. These cognitive processes include reading, social learning, imitation, teaching, social motivation and theory of mind. Taking the first of these three types of cultural learning as examples, I ask whether and to what extent these cognitive processes have been adapted genetically or culturally to enable cumulative cultural evolution. I find that recent empirical work in comparative psychology, developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience provides surprisingly little evidence of genetic adaptation, and ample evidence of cultural adaptation. This raises the possibility that it is not only 'grist' but also 'mills' that are culturally inherited; through social interaction in the course of development, we not only acquire facts about the world and how to deal with it (grist), we also build the cognitive processes that make 'fact inheritance' possible (mills).

Original publication




Journal article


Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

Publication Date





2181 - 2191


Adaptation, Biological, Animals, Cultural Evolution, Humans, Imitative Behavior, Interpersonal Relations, Learning, Mirror Neurons, Models, Biological, Motivation, Reading, Selection, Genetic, Social Adjustment, Theory of Mind