Purposely Shaping the Evolution of Human Culture

Ideas have been shaped by the same evolutionary forces throughout human history that produce the great diversity of life on Earth. The skill sets and fashion sensibilities of each culture arose in a particular geographic setting — attuned to local climates, landscapes, flora, and fauna. The cave dwellings of Paleolithic European people, for example, differ greatly from the tepees of Plains Indians in North America or the straw huts associated with Pacific Islanders.

The evolutionary principles of variation, inheritance, and selection have shaped the artifacts of culture in much the same way as the biological attributes of our unique human bodily nature. Our evolutionary history is what made us into hairless primates who walk upright and live in complex social arrangements. In the same manner, our cultures have evolved according to the cultural laws of biology with their own idiosyncratic histories of inheritance and adaptation.

This can be seen in the architectural forms of buildings, as suggested above, and also in other key arenas of society such as the style of hats we wear or our preferred ways to express ourselves through song and dance. Cultures that arose around cyclic concepts for space and time have tended to cultivate tribal rituals that take place in a circle — such as those in many North American societies that arise around a central fire or the drum circles of Africa’s indigenous tribes. Others have evolved along linear notions of causal events that gave way to a historic continuum of passing generations. Examples include the lineages presented in the Old Testament and the westward progression of “manifest destiny” that lead to a full conquest of North America by the burgeoning United States.

While this conclusion holds true for many aspects of culture, it lacks rigor and completeness when placed under the scrutiny of our modern-day institutions of mass media and the communications technologies they use to set agendas and spread particular ideologies. Vast networks of think tanks, television and radio outlets, newspapers and websites are routinely orchestrated to promote one ideological vision of the world over others in the grand battle of political and economic orthodoxy. Agenda-setting is a professional industry for people trained in marketing, policy analysis, communications, community organizing, and so much more.

This begs the question whether the spread of ideas is a natural phenomenon, guided by physical laws like the wind currents that carry a falling leaf to its final resting place or is it that cogent worldviews arise through the intentional design of media architects seeking to establish their own agendas? Both approaches seem to hold a kernel of truth about the evolution of culture.

So which is it? Does culture arise naturally with a fitness to local landscapes? Or is it sculpted and built like a grand cathedral according to some preordained plan? Even at a cursory glance it should be clear that the answer is of the both/and variety. Ideas spread by the culmination of both happenstance and intent, bringing alive the opportunity to ask ourselves how shall we guide the direction of our societies?

In these times — when planetary-scale challenges confront us on unprecedented scales — we must cultivate deep knowledge of the evolutionary processes that enable cultures to arise, persist, and adapt over time. It is necessary that we ask the difficult questions about which parts of culture are well suited to our current predicaments and which no longer serve us, even if they were “tried and true” for a previous time.

It is in the spirit of this inquiry that I would like to suggest a helpful framework developed by Jonnie Hughes in On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (And Ourselves), presented graphically below. He offers a way of thinking about the evolution of culture through the dual lenses of Darwinian natural selection — those ideas with adaptive fitness will survive and flourish — and the Lamarckian notion of improvement by learning across one’s lifespan.

(Adapted from Jonnie Hughes book on cultural evolution)

Hughes develops the example of dog breeding to demonstrate the synergistic nature of cultural evolution. The first dogs came into being at the meeting place of human settlements and wild wolf populations. Those wolves that lingered nearby would benefit from gathering food scraps tossed out by ancestral villagers tens of thousands of years ago. Over time, an “artificial” selection process offered advantages to those wolves most inclined to be docile and tame — benefiting them more than their wilder counterparts as they could interact more frequently with human food providers. Gradually, the first domesticated dogs were forged by this mostly natural and unguided selection process.

Later it became desirable for human hunters to selectively breed dogs for helpful traits. In this manner, companion animals were pruned for behavioral features that enabled them to work livestock, participate in hunts, and provide loyal friendships between human and canine. This process was actively directed by people and therefore took place more quickly than the haphazard domestications of prior generations.

Eventually there came a time when breeding took a turn towards the fashionable — producing pedigree animals from a highly selective effort to remove undesirable features and produce the “perfect” cocker spaniel, border collie, bulldog, etc. This process made use of Darwinian evolution ( with natural variation, heredity, and selection taking place) but it was guided by designer minds as people crafted dogs into models of idealized biological traits.

And now — with the advent of synthetic biology through breakthroughs in biochemistry and genetics — it is becoming possible to create new genes (and thus wholly unnatural traits) in the spirit of genetically modified plants and animals to create “super pedigrees” unlike anything nature might have produced on its own.

In the same fashion, we can begin to think about the evolution of culture. As we enter this new era of planetary limits and an exploding population, how shall we build upon the natural proclivities of cultural evolution to “select” for those societal traits that we deem most beneficial for our future prosperity? This is not an academic question. It is of central importance to the health and — dare I say survival — of our species in the 21st Century.

My partner, Lazlo Karafiath, and I have recently launched a new company called DarwinSF to apply the tools of cultural evolution to the great challenges confronting humanity today. Our first effort is a Climate Meme Project focusing on the discourse surrounding global warming, where we have already initiated a research endeavor to map the meme landscape on this vital topic. Think of it as the cultural correlate to those biological features selected for by dog breeders.

We may not be ready to design a “pedigree culture” that everyone agrees on, but we do ardently believe that the only way to accelerate the adoption of new economic models and political systems that serve us in the new world is to take a mindful approach built upon a robust understanding of cultural evolution.

It is with this much more modest, yet still bold and ambitious, mission that we have begun in earnest. No longer should we be satisfied with haphazard approaches to cultural change — especially with the fierce urgency of planetary crises like global warming pressing down upon us. It is now possible to engage in the mindful design of stories about our relationship with the natural world and the morality of those roles we might choose to play within it.

In times past, it was deemed desirable to mindlessly extract resources in order to accumulate material wealth and power with no eye toward the future. Now that we have more than seven billion people living on this Earth and are reaching or surpassing all planetary boundaries necessary for our future survival, it is imperative that we re-envision our place in this world so that we become stewards of planetary well-being before it’s too late.

And so I call upon you to take seriously the need for mindful design. Let us now set our collective intentions to remain alive and flourishing upon the Earth. This will require deep insights into the principles of cultural evolution. And it will necessitate a critical evaluation of our assumptions and beliefs regarding our relationship with the rest of nature, of which we are but a part.

We are now well beyond the cautious safeguards of planetary balance. Only a mindful approach to cultural evolution will provide the opportunity to save ourselves before it is too late.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.