Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more convinced that the concept of evolution is not only a powerful explanation of changes and patterns in the biological world, but also, by extension, of changes and patterns in human culture, or the world of ideas. If the survival of (species of) organisms ultimately depends on their ability to adapt to ever-changing environments, then the same might very well be true of ideas and concepts, and I believe it is a fruitful line of study to pursue this idea.
That adaptation is the key to prolonged survival is argued by many if not all evolutionary scientists, but a very convincing and clear exploration of this idea was made in The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization by Geerat J. Vermeij, published in 2010. Besides a great many enlightening anecdotes about evolutionary processes in various organisms, from seashells to grasses to mammals, Vermeij emphasises that evolutionary processes can also explain cultural phenomena. A first example is an analysis of the survival of societies or civilisations on the cultural level as compared to the survival of species on the genetic level. Societies, too, are confronted with changing environments and their ability to adapt techonologically and culturally determines their ability to overcome conflicts with nature and/or competing societies. Vermeij makes many interesting points on principles that apply to both biological and cultural survival. Redundancy is an important strategy, for example:
Vital functions must be duplicated and dispersed among similar parts, so that if a function is disabled in one part or in one place, a society or a living body will not collapse completely. (p. 76)
As Vermeij stresses, this principle is not always utilised in human societies, where economic production and centres of strategic importance are often centralised to maximise efficiency, but at the cost of risk-reducing redudancy.
Another vital point is the evolution of social intelligence in a selection of species, and in particular the evolution towards culture in humans. Culture, in particular social adaptations that encourage cooperation and the enforcement of social rules (religions, group identities) have proven extremely valuable in the history of humanity, allow groups of humans to work together for their communal survival. Thankfully, the evolution of intelligence does not stop here, according to Vermeij, and in a brilliant chapter on complexity of life, he traces it from “meaningless interactions among chemical compounds” to
[…] the gradual appearance of awareness, purposefull action, the perception of meaning, and a desire for accomplishment, the all-important realization that there is utility in existence that transcends the ancestral, previously sufficient goals of persistence and replication. (p. 130)
Another recent book dealing with cultural, but particularly emotional, evolution is George E. Vaillant’s Spiritual Evolution. It focuses mainly on the relationship between a range of positive emotions and different areas of the brain. For each of these emotions (among others love, joy, and compassion) Vaillant shows the ties to different stages in evolution ranging from basic impulses we share with reptilians to more recent developments in neo-cortex unique to humans and (some) other mammals. The style of the book is informal and anecdotal, ultimately not geared towards a scientific proof of all the author’s assertions, but more towards an emotional and spiritual resonance in the reader, which makes it a stimulating read anyhow, although a more rigorous scientific treatment might make the book more convincing to some people.
Vaillant’s main point is that a revaluation of the positive emotions will enable us to lead spiritual lives that benefit both ourselves and others around us. By examining the basis of emotions in biological evolution, we award them also the scientific appreciation they are due, something which has been sorely lacking in psychology and other sciences until now, as the author points out. The distinction Vaillant makes between spirituality (which he ties to the experiencing of specific positive emotions, e.g. love, hope, joy, awe, and mystical illumination) and religion (a more rationalistic social institution geared towards the propagation of ethical values, group identity, and indeed spirituality) is a very valuable one, and one which I have espoused myself for years. I, too, would argue that while religion, in particular the (pseudo-)rational and social aspects of it, may be responsible for great suffering in the world (as are certain non-religious social movements), it does not mean we must denounce spirituality along with it.
While both books touch upon cultural evolution in their own way, in the end neither had as its main purpose to present some principles of how to understand cultural evolution in its own right. For that reason, I will attempt to present an essay regarding some of these principles here soon.