Cultural evolution is a field that explores the historic developments for all social behavior. It explores the cooperative behaviors of social insects like ants, termites, and bees alongside the mating strategies of rhesus monkeys, orangutans, and gorillas. Exploring animal behavior in many species allows us to generalize how evolution gave rise to the array of strategies and solutions that can been seen in the animal kingdom.
It also looks across cultures for human diversity. Some societies adhere strongly to social norms (think of China) while others are much more individualistic, celebrating those who break the mold and try something new (think of the United States). What role did the unique histories of each region of the world play in selecting for one kind of social organization over another? How are the cultural traits observed today related to the landscapes in which they spread at some point in the past? A great deal is now known about this—by conducting ethnographic studies of social norms and practices, analyzing the technologies that arose in different cultural settings, and exploring the various ways that people learn from one another throughout their lifetimes.
Why is all of this important for the current predicament humanity finds itself in? I’ll give a few answers. In order to understand what is possible to change, we have to first know how things changed in the past to make things the way they are today. Secondly, we can’t encourage change if we don’t know what is likely to work, where there is likely to be resistance, and how the ideas or practices we seek to spread are likely to be understood. The ways that things get adopted (or not) will be largely determined by the combination of factors that give rise to what is selected for and what is fit to survive, thrive, and spread in a given context.
Here at This View of Life we are delighted to offer a series of articles from different authors on these topics. Together we will look at the importance of stereotypes in humans and how we engage in social strategies differently from our primate cousins. Then we’ll explore how the synthesis of knowledge giving rise to the field of cultural evolution was hindered in the past when particular selection forces acted as barriers to progress on this intellectual front. And we’ll go on to consider the curiosities of human life stages (like adolescence) and how we came to be such a profoundly cooperative creature.
I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I enjoyed helping curate and edit it. As you dive into the materials presented here, think about what is happening in the world. Find ways to make use of this knowledge in your own life as you navigate the changes emerging around you.
Cultural evolution has so much to offer. May this little sampler whet your appetite for more.
Joe Brewer is Culture Editor here at This View of Life. He is also the project coordinator helping set up the Cultural Evolution Society mentioned above. If you want to be part of the knowledge revolution taking place in this exciting field, become a founding member here.