To Understand Present Day Cultures We Must Study the Past

David Sloan Wilson’s essay provides ample fodder for provocative discussion on cultural evolution. Are cultural traits adaptations, and if so, at what level(s) of selection? These questions can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis but that will mean we also need to know much more about how cultural traits and groups change over time. It can be misleading to offer hypotheses to explain present day group behaviors without considering forces molding the past. We cannot assume that the same underlying processes affecting emerging groups in the distant past are still at work in those groups today. Below we use religious traditions as examples of cultural groups more generally but our arguments would be equally applicable to secular polities or financial corporations.

It is possible that religions emerge and flourish because they are adaptive for their members or for religious groups or both. Those that persist as a consequence may undergo further growth and perhaps indefinite evolution, but the cultural transformations that have resulted in the major religions we see today may not have been selected in a Darwinian sense. Even if they are, then present day selection might not operate at the same level as in the past. Once a religious tradition is established, individual decisions and behaviors continue to influence group dynamics as a (metaphorical) “tug-of-war”: group governance seeks to maintain (or perhaps increase) numbers of adherents, whereas individuals seek fulfillment as members, perhaps leaving the group if the perceived benefits of defection outweigh the costs. If a religious tradition were to go extinct as a consequence this is not necessarily because of competition between religious groups. A group could simply lose members without any distinctive outside influence. Successful groups that continue to grow and (perhaps slowly) evolve will express emerging behaviors that do not stem from selection in the distant past. Rather, they are evolving “survival machines”, much like invasive species or (and no deeper parallels intended) cancer.

It is possible that the rate at which religious groups expand or contract can be predicted largely by internal factors. For example, a simple rule of thumb may be that the longer a tradition has been established the harder it becomes to eradicate due to the ‘weight of tradition’ (and all that implies psychologically). On this view, established religions with deep histories do continue to evolve, but the institutions change their functions over time not as a consequence of between-group competition, but only because the needs of the tradition change as the system matures. In this scenario, we are left with a time course in the life-cycle of a human group: initially requiring Darwinian selection on culture towards increased expectations of individual survival and/or productivity (which may be tied to group performance and competitive ability), but through time, involving more diffuse forces that continually shape the group, and depend less and less on survival of the fittest and more on group maintenance through internal adaptation to more complex environments (internal and external).

Cultural group selection may be a more prominent feature of warring groups. When tribes or states go to war the fates of individuals may become closely entwined with those of the group. Sedentarism and territoriality may contribute to these processes. But even in these circumstances, processes of cultural group selection are likely to be complex, since the characteristics of prevailing polities will depend on among other things, history, bordering states, local environments, cultural composition, etc.

We can actually test these hypotheses empirically. In much of the debate responding to David Sloan Wilson’s essay the question of evidential support is somewhat neglected.

Historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists can combine forces to study recent and present day religious cults, or hunter-gatherers that either make or don’t make the transition to sedentarism. They can study insurgencies and nation states. They can investigate .com startups and established firms and industries. There is a trove of simple questions waiting to be answered. What are the characteristics of groups that survive and those that do not? What are the individual and group level traits associated with different demographic trajectories, such as membership or employment? Is there good evidence for competition being reduced and/or cooperation being fostered within groups? What are the associated traits (individual, group)? Do these nascent groups, once gaining a foothold “reproduce”, spawning spatially distinct daughter groups? Are traits transferred to new groups with high fidelity (otherwise said, what is trait heritability)? For the oldest of these groups where histories are sufficiently detailed, did they experience a “transition” in their past that permitted them to go from a cult or emerging status to one that is more established, and in so doing, grow in membership number? Finally, and critically, does this transition process occur via measurable Darwinian processes, and if so, at what level(s) does it occur?

Michael E. Hochberg (University of Montpellier II, France; Santa Fe Institute, USA)

Harvey Whitehouse (University of Oxford, UK)

Published On: October 15, 2012

Michael Hochberg

Michael Hochberg

Dr. Hochberg’s research focuses on interdisciplinary applications of the evolutionary process. he is interested in how environmental conditions impact the genetics and expression of virulence, and what the implications are in areas ranging from cooperation in social groups, to the management of virulent pathogens, to population diversification and speciation. His laboratory uses a combination of mathematical modeling and experimental evolution with the system Pseduomonas fluorescens SBW25 – lytic bacteriophage PHI2.

Harvey Whitehouse

Harvey Whitehouse

Harvey Whitehouse is Chair of Social Anthropology, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. Harvey is one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion field. He is especially well known for his theory of “modes of religiosity” that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary theorists. The modes theory proposes that the frequency and emotionality of rituals determines the scale and structure of religious organizations: low-frequency, highly arousing rituals bind together small but very cohesive groups of participants; high-frequency, less emotionally intense rituals create large anonymous communities that are more diffusely integrated. In recent years, Harvey’s work has expanded beyond religion to examine the role of rituals of all kinds in binding groups together and motivating inter-group competition, including warfare. This research has become increasingly global in reach with ongoing data collection now established at field sites in Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Vanuatu, Brazil, the U.S., Spain, Cameroon, the U.K., Turkey, and Libya. Harvey is also a founding editor, and the editor for ritual variables, of Seshat: Global History Databank.



  • Peter Turchin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. We need to propose alternative hypotheses and test them on historical data. Archaeology and history provide us with the ‘paleontological record’ to test theories of social evolution. So far, this has been done only in a few cases, but I am convinced that it will be empirical investigations of this kind that will resolve the debate (as much as it is possible in science).

  • I too agree thoroughly with this. There is a vast amount of data in the old-time ethnographies on religions of the world before the missionaries got too insistent. That is where to look if you want to understand religions.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    I also agree! History is the fossil record of cultural evolution, which is often so detailed that it puts the biological fossil record to shame. Narrative histories are often sufficient to evaluate evolutionary hypotheses and quantification adds considerable refinement.

    A good recent example is “The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage” by Henrich, Boyd, and Richerson (2012: From the abstract: “Here, we develop and explore the hypothesis that the norms and institutions that compose the modern package of monogamous marriage have been favoured by cultural evolution because of their group-beneficial effects—promoting success in inter-group competition.”

    Another example is Robert Bellah’s (2011) “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age”. Bellah combines his extensive knowledge as a sociologist and historian with a multilevel evolutionary perspective. Here is a recent audio interview that I conducted with Bellah: .

    One of my projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation involves studying conceptions of the afterlife from a cultural evolutionary perspective. I and my colleagues are using the historical record to identify when particular conceptions arose, how they spread compared to alternative conceptions, and how they changed over time. We have made a special study of the concept of the resurrection associated with Christianity, which originated late in Judaic history, several centuries before Christ. Enough historical context is known to identify group solidarity (within Jewish sects in opposition to the Jewish establishment of the time) as the main advantage of the belief. A more recent example concerns the modern religion of 7th Day Adventism, which is highly adapted at the group level, and its precursor, Millerism, which qualifies as a cultural parasite. Mutualisms in nature often evolve from relationships that are originally parasitic, and the transition from Millerism to 7th Day Adventism can be regarded as a comparable multi-step cultural evolutionary process.

    Everyone agrees that many causes of cultural change are psychological and take place within groups without an overt between-group selection process. Examples include explicit decision-making and imitation (blind or otherwise). Deeper analysis requires understanding how these mechanisms evolved. Thus, if I work to get my group to adopt a policy that is good for everyone, I have provided a public good at my own expense, and so on. The group one report, as quoted in my target essay, was sensitive to these issues.

    It is common for historians, social scientists, and even evolutionists such as Steve Pinker to ask what an explicit cultural evolutionary perspective adds to the study of history. For me, this is comparable to the question “what does evolutionary theory add to the study of the fossil record?” The fossil record and human history both include masses of empirical information that can be interpreted by any theoretical perspective or without any theory, as “one damn thing after another”. Evolutionary theory does an excellent job of interpreting the information. Everyone knows this for the biological fossil record, but the awareness for human history is only beginning to dawn.

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