Last week, a young man walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire on the congregation. Nine people died that day from what was later revealed to be a racially motivated hate crime by the 21-year-old Dylann Roof—the most recent in a rising wave of mass shootings in the United States.
This pattern of excessive gun violence stirs endless debate about what brings about this unique form of American Exceptionalism. Why is it that the United States stands out? What are the key cultural, political, and economic features that make us so prone to grab our (readily accessible) guns, walk out into public places and kill our fellow citizens? For the good people of Charleston there is an additional question lingering in the public psyche, what is going to be needed for us to get beyond the long history of racism that continues to plague our society to the present day?
These are questions for the field of cultural evolution. They are exactly the kinds of practical considerations that the newly forming Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution (SSCE) will address. Few people know that a mature science exists to explain how societies become the way they are and how the process of social change actually works. The SSCE is not yet in place so there is at present no authoritative body of expertise we can go to for answers when mass shootings take place.
So how might an SSCE panel (like a medical review board or expert committee from other sciences) respond to a crisis like the wave of mass shootings? It would be comprised of researchers in fields like cultural psychology, evolutionary biology, and political history—so there would be guidance regarding the way social norms are established in a society, where the human tendencies for tribal behavior come from in our evolutionary history, and why certain models of governance are unable to respond to problems when their structures are ill-suited to the task at hand.
These kinds of insights would tell us that our polarized, two-party political system is too divided around racial “wedge issues” and too corrupted by special interests like the gun lobby to be capable of delivering sensible gun laws (even when the majority of Americans want them). They would help us understand how economic conditions and media reporting influence how people think about race as a tribal identity. Historic patterns of prior violence passed down through the decades would be acknowledged for the role they play in creating the conditions for this kind of event to be “selected for” by present-day culture.
In other words, mass shootings are a problem that cultural evolution can help us solve. They arise through evolving patterns of social history that can only be explained with an integrated perspective that combines all levels of social change—from the inner workings of the human mind through to the large-scale governing structures that guide our political lives.
I won’t presume to have the answer for how mass shootings can be brought to an end. That is beyond the scope of this article. What I hope to convey here is that a body of knowledge already exists that can give us the best hope for finding that answer. You are invited to join us on this learning journey. Become a founding member and help us define the ‘Grand Challenges’ of cultural evolution that the SSCE will attempt to solve in the months and years ahead.
Systematic violence is one promising candidate worthy of making this list of grand challenges. It is my belief that we have all the pieces of information that will be needed—spread out across the many siloes of research in the fields that comprise the study of cultural evolution. What is needed now is a coordinated effort to bring it all together and apply it to the stark problems of the world outside the Ivory Tower where it is desperately needed right now.
Are you with me? Let’s get started.