Some possible principles of cultural evolution

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.