As the readers of this blog know, one of the central directions in my research has been understanding the evolution of large-scale, complex societies. Actually, it is the main question motivating this Forum.
Now that I am back from my travels, I have shifted gears and started working on my long-neglected popular book that will explain my current thinking of how we humans made the transition from living in small-scale societies integrated by face-to-face interactions to modern anonymous societies of millions (tens, hundreds of millions) individuals. Right now I am struggling with trying to explain why this question is best answered within the framework of Cultural Evolution. Let me run this logic by you, readers, and I hope that you can provide feedback on whether it makes sense – or not.
First, what is ‘cultural evolution’? There is a lot of misunderstanding of this discipline, even among the scientists. Evolutionary studies of the society have been called a variety of names: Sociocultural Evolution, Social Evolution, Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and even Social Darwinism (the last one is now a thoroughly discredited theory, which was used especially in the late nineteenth century to justify racism, imperialism, Nazism, and a number of other unpleasant ideologies).
To many social scientists (including, most notably, social anthropologists), sociocultural evolution implies some kind of a theory of social progress, which often assumes that human societies pass through a set of well-defined stages. For example, one of the earliest proponents of sociocultural evolution, the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881), proposed that societies develop through three stages: from ‘savagery’ to ‘barbarism’ and finally to ‘civilization.’
Others proposed more sophisticated schemes, but the majority of anthropologists today are united in their rejection of such ‘stadial’ theories of social evolution (and rightly so).
Equating evolutionism with fixed stages is a very puzzling approach for evolutionary scientists, like me, whose training was in biological evolution. Biologists have long ago converged on a standard definition of biological evolution. Simply enough, it’s the study of how and why frequencies of genes change with time. This definition doesn’t imply that there has to be any kind of progress. ‘Progress’ (however defined) may result from changes in genetic frequencies, but it is equally possible to have regress, or long periods of stasis. Paleontological data show that different lineages in the animal and plant kingdoms can follow all kinds of evolutionary trajectories.
Similarly, nothing prevents us from defining cultural evolution as the study of how and why the frequencies of cultural traits change with time. Whether there is progress, or whether societies pass through defined stages becomes an empirical question.
This is the approach that was followed in the pioneering work by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson. During the three decades since the publication of their seminal book in 1985, an initially small research group of Rob and Pete together with their graduate students expanded into a vibrant and internationally recognized scientific discipline.Two years ago we had a defining conference in Frankfurt, where Cultural Evolution came of age. When I say ‘Cultural Evolution’, I mean specifically this particular discipline.
What are, then, ‘cultural traits’? Culture is understood very broadly—as any kind of socially transmitted information. Thus, information about edible berries and mushrooms that parents and other older, wiser people transmit to youngsters—that’s part of culture. Culture also includes knowledge of how to make tools, stories and songs, dance and rituals, and also ‘norms’—socially transmitted rules of behavior. Basically, any kind of information that is passed between members of society is what we call culture.
A cultural trait is similar to a meme, a word coined by Richard Dawkins, which is typically explained as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins proposed that memes are cultural equivalents of genes—self-replicating units of cultural transmission. Cultural traits, however, are a more general category than memes, because they also include quantitative traits that cannot be easily represented as discrete alternatives (for example, an inclination to trust strangers, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog).
The process of transmitting cultural traits is also quite different from that of gene replication. It can occur simply by observing and imitation, or it may involve active teaching and perhaps even drilling, to make sure that a cultural form is transmitted faithfully. For example, Homer’s Iliad was transmitted orally through many generations of itinerant performers, before it was written down. Culture can also be transmitted by such media as paper (e.g., instruction manuals and, more generally, books) and computers. Such variable mechanisms of transmission, each with a different range of fidelities, is another reason why theorists working within the field of Cultural Evolution prefer speaking of cultural traits, rather than memes.
Cultural knowledge, thus, is in some ways analogous to genetically transmitted information, and in others quite different. A precise comparison is difficult because, while we understand very well how genetic information is encoded and transmitted, with cultural information we are on much shakier grounds. We know that knowledge is somehow encoded in the brain, but precisely how is still largely unknown.
While this is an annoying problem for cultural evolutionists, we can’t wait for brain scientists to provide us with the answers. We need to understand our societies so that we can make them more cooperative, more peaceful, and more wealthy. This means that we need to proceed now with the investigation of how societies and cultures evolve, while incorporating any new insights as they emerge from neurocognitive sciences. Remember that Darwin and first evolutionists were able to make a lot of progress with the study of biological evolution in the nineteenth century, before they had any understanding of how genetic information is encoded. Think of Cultural Evolution today as being at a similar stage of development as genetic evolution was before the Mendelian Revolution.
To be continued