by William Benzon

Cultural Evolution: Mind-Culture Co-Evolution


This is a course in the evolution of human culture from its origins up to the present. The emphasis will be on what happens in the mind, because that is the locus of culture. The course presupposes a general knowledge of human history and culture and a relatively high level of sophistication in thinking about such topics. Lecture material will consist of various articles and book chapters written either individually or jointly by me and the late David G. Hays.

Most of these materials can be found at this website: Mind-Culture Coevolution.

The introduction to that website can serve as a general description of the kinds of issues we will investigate in this course, Introduction: Mind-Culture Co-Evolution.

Preliminary reading

For preliminary reading I suggest that everyone read:
Laland, K. M. and G. R. Brown (2002). Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

This consists of eight chapters introducing and comparing evolutionary approaches to human behavior. The chapters on memetics and gene-culture coevolution are most germane to this course, but all chapters should be perused.

You should also read at least one each from the following two groups:

  • Harris, M. (1977). Cannibals and Kings. New York, Random House.
  • Toffler, A. (1973). The Third Wave. New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc.
  • Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero. New York, Pantheon Books.


  • Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Through and Science. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
  • Piaget, J. (1970). Genetic Epistemology. New York, Columbia University Press.

Amazon List
Here’s an Amazon list that I prepared on basic books in cultural evolution.


  1. The Possibility and Consequences of Evolution (PDF)Evolution is most often studied as a phenomenon of the biological world. We will be studying it as a phenomenon of human society in history. As a prelude to that, I want to consider evolution as a phenomenon inherent in the natural world as such.
  2. Minds and Groups (PDF)That the human mind-in-culture is somehow a collective enterprise is a notion that has been difficult to rationalize. Physically, humans are separate individuals; psychologically, each of us has an autonomous will. How then can a group be anything other than a collection of individuals, each pursuing his or her own ends in collaboration with or in competition with others?
  3. The Evolution of Cognition (PDF)With this lecture we begin dealing with the central conceptions of the theory that David Hays and I developed. We started with cognition and our ability to formulate abstract concepts. That ability is subject to cultural elaboration and evolution.
  4. The Evolution of Expressive Culture (PDF)That our cognitive capacities have, in some sense, progressed has been a commonplace for some time. There is no substantial doubt that we know more about the nature world than we did 50, 100, 500, a thousand or more years ago. Our knowledge has progressed. In “The Evolution of Expressive Culture” David Hays argues that there is progress in the arts and in religion as well.
  5. Stages in the Evolution of Music (PDF)In this article I do two things. Firstly, I analyze musical devices in terms commensurate with those in lectures three and four. The analysis focuses on how various properties of sound are “abstracted” from the gestalt and subject to interdependent regimes of structure. Secondly, taking jazz as an example, I consider how musical forms from different evolutionary strata, as it were, can co-exist in the same historical period.
  6. The Evolution of Narrative and the Self (PDF)Narrative has been subject to considerable examination in various disciplines over the last three decades. This lecture considers narrative in relation to “the self,” arguing that more sophisticated forms of narrative support more sophisticated elaborations of one’s inner life. The argument is grounded in the theory of neuro-behavioral mode elaborated by the late Warren McCulloch.
  7. Politics, Cognition, and Personality (PDF)In this piece David Hays considers forms of governance, from the hunter-gatherer band up through the modern nation-state, and including some remarks on the possibility of world governance.
  8. Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (PDF)This last lecture considers two articles in which I speculate about how culture could evolve through a mechanism of blind variation and selective retention that parallels biological evolution. There is where I begin thinking about the cultural parallels to the phenotypes and genes of evolutionary biology.
  9. Appendix (PDF)

William Benzon | Biography

William L. Benzon, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist and is an Associate Editor of The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. He has recently published Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture.

Dr. Benzon has been a consultant to NASA, the U.S. Air Force, New York State, and many private sector corporations on matters ranging from long-term computing strategies, through process design and reengineering, to document design. A multi-disciplinarian, he has taught in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and has published scholarly articles, reviews, and technical reports on African-American music, cognition and literature, cultural evolution, brain theory, visual thinking, and technical communication.

As a jazz musician, Dr. Benzon plays trumpet and flugelhorn and has shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Frank Foster, Al Grey, and Nick Brignola. He is cofounder of the New African Music Collective, a musical ensemble which has been supported by the New York State Foundation for the Arts. He has also exhibited computer art in the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island.