Cultural selection models aim to explain cultural phenomena as the products of a selective process, often characterising institutions, practices, norms or behaviours as adaptations. I argue that a lack of attention has been paid to the explanatory power of cultural selection frameworks. Arguments for cultural selection frequently depend on demonstrating only that selection models can in principle be applied to culture, rather than explicitly demonstrating the explanatory payoffs that could arise from their application. Understanding when and how cultural selection generates powerful explanations is crucial to evaluating cultural selection, as well as realising its promised epistemic and practical benefits. I argue that the ability for cultural selection to explain ‘design without a designer’ is crucial to successful and powerful cultural selection explanations. I introduce the strategy of comparing cultural selection to goal-directed agent accounts in order to evaluate when cultural selection can provide distinctive explanatory payoffs, drawing on two case studies to illustrate the benefits of this strategy. I argue that a focus on phenomena which cannot be explained through intention or agency-based explanations in particular could provide a fruitful avenue to identifying the cases where cultural selection can be insightfully applied.