Although the origins of the idea are ancient, the embrace of cultural
evolution by evolutionary theory may well represent the biggest
revolution in evolutionary biology in the last hundred and fifty
years. In a radical turn-around which many biologists have yet to
digest, cultural evolution installs a traditional foe - namely
intelligent design - at the heart of evolutionary theory - and
paints the more traditional kind of evolution by random mutations as a
primitive, degenerate type of evolutionary change - one that was only
used for a brief period in order to get the process going in the first
place - during the boot sequence of evolution.
I have another video which introduces the topic if
you are interested in more details.
As far as I am aware, the phrase originates with Richard Dawkins. He
used it in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene".
Here is the relevant quote:
Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of
replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to
take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this
new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to
the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided
the `soup' in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had
arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We
biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply
that we tend to forget that it is only one of many possible kinds of
- Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene", p. 193
Here is Richard Dawkins in 2009, using the phrase in a recent video:
[Richard Dawkins footage]
Hans Moravec also used the phrase - in his book, Robot:
Culture lets us rapidly accommodate to environmental changes because
it is a medium for a new kind of evolution.
- Hans Moravec, Robot (p.3)
Other authors have used the phrase as well:
Once language emerged, it brought with it the means for communicating
traditions and a new kind of evolution, a cultural evolution. At that
point the whole emphasis of human development moved into a different
- David Lightfoot, 1999
A meme is an idea that can lodge in a person's mind, and can be
transmitted, in print or by word of mouth, to other minds. In other
words, it is a replicator. What is peculiar about humans is that they
can hold ideas in their heads, and transmit them to others: they
provide an environment in which a new kind of replicator, memes, can
evolve. The human mind is another example of a crane. It evolved by
natural selection, without need for an intelligent designer. Once
evolved, however, it provides a medium in which a new kind of
evolution by natural selection can occur, involving a new kind of
replicator, the meme.
- John Maynard Smith, reviews Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea
One problem with most of these usages - and indeed with the phrase
itself - is the suggestion that cultural evolution represents a new,
inpependent instance of the evolutionary process. I do not think that
is the most helpful way of thinking about the phenomenon. Rather I
prefer the perspective that cultural evolution is simply one aspect of
the existing evolutionary process on the planet. This is because culture and
DNA interact - through processes such as genetic assimilation.
What perhaps I ought to say is that I am talking about a new
kind of mechanism of evolutionary change. However, the contraction to
"a new kind of evolution" is too appealing for me to resist.
The phrase has also been used in a few other contexts. For example,
it has been used to refer to genetic algorithms and synthetic life.
Also, there have been some usages in the context of future changes -
such as genetic engineering. For example, here is Russel Blackford:
The idea of a new kind of evolution of the human species, driven by
increasingly intimate and internalised technology, is one whose time
has come. Every day, the idea seems that little bit less "out there":
it is increasingly familiar to the public, better understood, more and
more plausible, and it merits examination from many viewpoints.
It is true that any future changes to humanity will probably be
fuelled by cultural evolution. However, I prefer to emphasise that
the new kind of evolution I am talking about is not a
speculaive future phenomenon, but has been going on for millions of
years - and is primarily responsible for our large brain, our spoken
language, reading and writing, human flight, telecommunications,
computers - and so on - the massive acceleration of evolutionary
change that has led to modern humans, and their artefacts.