Following is a brief essay on some principles of evolution that could be useful in analysing the spread of ideas, concepts, and ideological complexes in human culture. While there will be many practical differences between evolution in biological entities and cultural ones, some general principles of evolution may perhaps apply to both.
Exactly what type of evolutionary unit we are dealing with in cultural evolution may be somewhat difficult to pinpoint. We may analyse an idea or concept, or zooming out we can look at conceptual complexes, or even ideologies or belief systems. On the other hand, a more finegrained look is also possible, taking as units the things that constitute simplex ideas, though here we end up in the domain of language, which requires an evolutionary treatment of its own, something I hope to do in my daily research.
The question is whether we can think of any relatively non-arbitrary way of selecting levels of analysis for cultural evolution. It is not all that straightforward to describe what constitutes an idea. The idea or concept of fire for example has many sides to it: it encompasses the ability to conceive of fire as an entitity or eventuality in the perceptible world, but it also refers to ideas about how fire can come into existence (technology for making fire, myth for the origin of fire), what it is useful for, why it can be dangerous, and how it can be removed. As is clear, a seemingly simple concept such as fire sits at centre of a whole network of different ideas related or even essential to its own informational content. To understand the idea of fire, we have to understand at least some of these aspects of it, otherwise we don’t understand it at all. (cf. Aristotle’s Four Causes).
A possibility might be to start operating on the level of transfer. By that I mean that we could look at what aspects of a complex idea are transferred when the idea is formed inside a person’s mind. When someone observes flames consuming a branch, the idea of fire as a force that destroys/consumes wood is formed inside the mind. Asked by another to explain what fire is, that person may relate this observation, and a host of others such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph. All the individual aspects of the concept (consumes things, gives off warmth, quenched by water and earth, fanned by wind, given to man by a God, etc.) may be seen as units of transfer, as well as the overarching concept these aspects are related to (i.e. fire). In other words, we can let the unit of analysis depend on the transfer situations we are analysing. I realise this may not be all that less arbitrary than just picking any particular level, but it is at least geared toward a certain question we might want to answer. For now, I will just refer to cultural units of any level of analysis as entities.
Central to cultural evolution, as to evolution in general, is the principle of fitness, or how well an entity meets the requirements of survival imposed upon it by the environment. In the case of cultural entities, fitness means first and foremost how much it contributes to the survival/fitness of the host, to which I will return shortly. It should be noted, however, that there may be a few factors where survival of cultural entities is not (wholly) dependent on its contribution to the fitness of its host, such as:
- ‘viral’ propagation: The main thing that counts is that the host is alive long enough to propagate the entity. If an entity is ultimately destructive to its host, it does not ultimately contribute to the survival of that host. However, it may be that an entity confers short term benefits that allow it to spread quickly throughout a community anyway, so in some cases the ultimate contribution to fitness is made irrelevant by the proximate contribution.
- codification: Unique to cultural entities (at least at the moment) is the ability for them to be somehow represented in unliving matter. Once written down, carved in stone, saved in a digital file, or what have you, a cultural entity is dependent on a different kind of retention, and one that may be more long-lived than a human mind.
Nevertheless, we may suppose that most cultural entities have value and survive because they contribute to the fitness and survival of the (individual) host. For now, I will distinguish between three types of intrinsic value that cultural entities may confer on the host:
- practical value: Cultural entities can make assertions about how the world works. If this assertion is (partially) correct, it can help the host to survive physically in the world. This value can alternative be described as knowledge. Examples include knowing what types of food are edible or poisonous, the level of danger certain types of animals pose, etc. A subtype of knowledge may be technology, which covers the manufacturing and use of tools of all kinds.
- emotional/spiritual value: Cultural entities can engender emotions that may help a host to survive in the face of adversity, as counters to negative emotions that may compel a host to give up in the face of adversity. This is may be a unique cultural adaptation to some of the basic emotions. Fear, for example, may aid survival in some cases, but hinder it in others. Sometimes overcoming fear and taking risks ensures survival. Emotions such as hope and joy may mitigate fear and depression and cultural entities that engender such emotions may therefore contribute to survival. Religion and spirituality are important cultural complexes that may spread entities engendering positive emotions, though history proves that cultural entities of all kinds, also negative and destructive ones, are contained in such cultural complexes. Another, perhaps less obvious, carrier of emotional value may be entertainment, things that can bring us joy and happiness, or just distraction, among other things. Since entertainment seems to be becoming more and more prominent in the overarching Western cultural complex, this is a notion worth investigating.
- social value: Cultural entities may carry social value or status, in the sense that other people may be better disposed to a person if he or she talks in a certain way, espouses popular ideas, has rare knowledge, acts in an intimidating manner, etc. For perhaps obvious reasons, status may improve a host’s chances of survival, and independent of whether this is true or not, it is a fact that many people value status, and those people will therefore value cultural entities that confer it, allowing those entities to survive in them.
Note that individual entities may have different levels of fitness on the individual level and on the communal level. For example, a tenacious emotional/intellectual voice in your head that says “they are wrong, you are right” will alienate the host individual from others, and is therefore unlikely to be a fit entity on the communal level. However, the alienation and isolation that the entity causes might reinforce the entity itself, emphasising the supposed difference between right and wrong in the individual and others. In other words, the more alienated the individual host feels, the stronger the hold of this meme on the individual may become. A subtle modification of this meme to “they are wrong, we are right” is much more likely to be successful inside a community of people, and in fact we see it in action in the world in many forms.
This illustrates another point: while the actual truth value of an entity may be important in some respects, what also counts is whether the host believes knowledge to be true, especially in the case of entities where it is difficult to empirically test this knowledge. Believing fire doesn’t burn flesh is unlikely to be a very fit idea, as its assertion is easily and painfully refuted by empirical testing. The isolating “they are wrong, you are right” idea from above, however, is more insidious, as it is very difficult to ascertain its actual truth value, particularly for the hosts themselves!
Another important division may be between survival of an entity, and propagation. Survival of a cultural entity will be predominantly dependent on its value to individual hosts, while propagation of cultural entities is more dependent on its value in a community, i.e. whether people are likely to share and adopt an entity and/or codify it.
These are mere sketches, and I have left several important aspects of the issue undiscussed. For example, there is the question of what constitutes propagation of a cultural entity. Here we have to deal with the faithfulness of transfer, the medium used for transfer, etc. Again, language comes into play here, but as I said, that is a topic for my daily research, on which I might write here in the future. Also, we face potential difficulties of grouping and lineages. It does not seem fitting for an evolutionary theory that there are ideal ideas or cultural entities, just as there is no archetypal biological human. A (biological) species is not a simple collection of features, and for the same reason, it can be false to lump cultural entities together indiscriminately, particularly in the case of communal cultural complexes such as religions. All the same, this applies to individual concepts too, and it seems unlikely to me that there exists a single cultural concept of e.g. fire, perhaps not even in the mind of one individual, except as an abstraction by the observer.
I hope on the one hand that this was a stimulating essay for some readers, and that I haven’t been re-inventing the wheel overmuch. On the other hand, it has served as a useful way for me to gather some thoughts on the subject, so it has been time well spent regardless.