Did Human Culture Emerge in a Cultural Evolutionary Transition in Individuality?

Dinah R. Davison, Claes Andersson, Richard E. Michod, Steven L. Kuhn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality (ETI) have been responsible for the major transitions in levels of selection and individuality in natural history, such as the origins of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, and eusocial insects. The integrated hierarchical organization of life thereby emerged as groups of individuals repeatedly evolved into new and more complex kinds of individuals. The Social Protocell Hypothesis (SPH) proposes that the integrated hierarchical organization of human culture can also be understood as the outcome of an ETI—one that produced a “cultural organism” (a “sociont”) from a substrate of socially learned traditions that were contained in growing and dividing social communities. The SPH predicts that a threshold degree of evolutionary individuality would have been achieved by 2.0–2.5 Mya, followed by an increasing degree of evolutionary individuality as the ETI unfolded. We here assess the SPH by applying a battery of criteria—developed to assess evolutionary individuality in biological units—to cultural units across the evolutionary history of Homo. We find an increasing agreement with these criteria, which buttresses the claim that an ETI occurred in the cultural realm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-236
Number of pages24
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Cultural evolution
  • Cultural group selection
  • Evolutionary transitions in individuality
  • Human evolution
  • Social protocell
  • Sociont

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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