Monday, December 12, 2005

Cultural Evolution

Evolution theory consists of an extremely powerful set of concepts. While these concepts have clearly been demonstrated in terms of their explanatory and predictive powers in such fields as biology (hopefully even Intelligent Design proponents accept that they too can get bird flu as it evolves), it seems that the constant religiously inspired bickering has limited further thinking on the application of these ideas to other fields of study.

One field that hasn't been sufficiently explored is the evolution of cultures and societies. Why do some cultures produce wealth and expansion while others stagnate or die off? Chance? God?

These latter two explanations lack predictive power. So lets look at the time tested set of ideas we call evolution to see if we can gain better understanding, and perhaps a set of tools to allow us to predict what societies will enhance the well being of their populace, and which will not.

Historical Dynamics

First of all, are there patterns that recur in history in regards society and cultures? There seems to be a fair amount of research to support this basic concept.

Peter Turchin's War & Peace & War: The life cycles of imperial nations identifies recurring societal patterns that explain how new, cooperative groups emerge and form an expansionist culture, and how "competition and conflict between groups" eventually undermine the success of these cultures.

Cooperation. This single, powerful concept is the primary driver of the creation of a society, and the forms which this cooperation takes determines the culture of that society. I've written before on cooperation being one of the primary "laws of the universe", and here is yet another example.

I've also referred on occasion another apparent natural law, the inverse power law. This "inverse power curve" or Pareto distribution is a common natural function - we see it all the time in settings from biology to blogs. This "law" seems to play a strong role in the demise of cultures. Turchin theorizes that a successful culture grows rich via whatever non-zero cooperative values the culture has adopted. However, over time, inequalities in wealth and power naturally emerge among its people. The very success of the culture and the expression of this inverse power curve create the conditions for the fall of that culture via the "corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate."

We see this lack of cooperation as a common element in the collapse of societies all the time. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond highlights that societal failures of economics are often correlated with (and he would say driven by) environmental failures. In other words, time and time again societies ignore environmental impact of their culture, and negatively impacting the environment inevitably leads eventually to a societal collapse. The tragedy of the commons is all too common.

Bottom line: Some cultures win and grow, and some lose and die off. The discussion above talks about some reasons why. But I think there are interesting "meta-principles" at work as well.

Cultural Selection

I believe that the concepts of evolution, including natural selection, mutation, variability within a species, punctuated equilibrium, and other concepts included underneath the umbrella of evolution apply just as readily to cultures as they do to bacteria.

Cultures that win and grow are those that thrive in a particular environment. Cultures that survive a long time are those that adapt to changes in that environment, and that adaptive ability comes from the amount of mutation and variability of ideas supported by the culture.

Rome is a classic example. Their culture lasted over a thousand years because it supported a wide variability in certain dimensions (styles of governance, tolerance of diversity in race and religion, rewarding novel ideas in technology and economics). When it died, it was due to economic inequalities (among other things) driving down the amount of cooperation taking place within the society.

Today's example is American Culture. Although only around for a couple hundred years, there is much about the culture of the U.S. that aligns with the "natural laws" of evolutionary theory. Our cultural "memes" self-propogate outside our culture, expanding our cultural boundaries and growth. Why is Rock-and-Roll a world wide phenomenon? Why are there McDonald's in every country of the world?

Why do I use "pop" culture examples instead of "meaningful" examples, such as democracy, innovation, tolerance? Because they're easier, for one, and they make the point. And we've seen time and time again that other societies who want the cultural sugar our culture generates learn that they also need to adopt some of the sugar cane agriculture and processing that allows that sugar to spread.

American culture has great promise as a growing wealth generator, bringing a higher standard of living to more and more of the world. But only if it maintains those aspects that support its continued evolutionary adaptability. Diminishing tolerance, less cooperation, and expansion by force of arms all work against our culture's staying power.

(I was going to get into contrasting Western/American culture with Islamic culture in the context of evolutionary theory, but this post is already too long and rambling. And not funny at all. So I'll save that for another post, hopefully when my writing style gets back to being more humorous than pedantic).


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