Steps to individuality in biology and culture

Dinah R. Davison, Richard E. Michod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Did human culture arise through an evolutionary transition in individuality (ETI)? To address this question, we examine the steps of biological ETIs to see how they could apply to the evolution of human culture. For concreteness, we illustrate the ETI stages using a well-studied example, the evolution of multicellularity in the volvocine algae. We then consider how those stages could apply to a cultural transition involving integrated groups of cultural traditions and the hominins that create and transmit traditions. We focus primarily on the early Pleistocene and examine hominin carnivory and the cultural change from Oldowan to Acheulean technology. We use Pan behaviour as an outgroup comparison. We summarize the important similarities and differences we find between ETI stages in the biological and cultural realms. As we are not cultural anthropologists, we may overlook or be mistaken in the processes we associate with each step. We hope that by clearly describing these steps to individuality and illustrating them with cultural principles and processes, other researchers may build upon our initial exercise. Our analysis supports the hypothesis that human culture has undergone an ETI beginning with a Pan-like ancestor, continuing during the Pleistocene, and culminating in modern human culture. This article is part of the theme issue 'Human socio-cultural evolution in light of evolutionary transitions'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20210407
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1872
StatePublished - Mar 13 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • biological complexity
  • cultural complexity
  • cultural evolution
  • evolutionary transitions
  • individuality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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