Cultural Evolution

The struggle for survival has resulted in an evolutionary process of natural selection and variation, caused by environmental pressures. It follows that all living matter and its by-products, including human behavior, are similarly evolving.

An organism or species that adapts to its environment will reproduce, thus perpetuating its kind. When a genetic mutation occurs in an individual within a species, and the change is beneficial, the individual has a greater chance of surviving, and thus passing on genes to the next generation.

Genes are the carriers of biological information, while memes transmit cultural information. Concepts or ideas which have long-term survivability have been labeled memes by the English biologist Richard Dawkins. Memes are cultural information; ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals, attitudes, and ethics that people exchange and share. Memes are typically replicated through the process of imitation. Memes survive, reproduce, and evolve in accordance with principles that share similarities with those of biological evolution.

Ideas or concepts are adaptable to the needs of a particular society or culture. Certain ideas are useful or fill a particular niche. Other ideas may be resisted, or ignored altogether.

Surviving ideas are passed on from generation to generation through written and spoken language, and through artistic and practical application. Ideas that are ultimately of no value to individuals or societies may not survive. Ideas that were once functional may become obsolete under changing conditions, and disappear completely, may change, or be replaced by a better idea.

In general, concepts and ideas will survive, based on how well they adapt to the changing needs of the culture.

A scientific, religious, philosophical, or ideological concept may progress from one individual to another, or from one source to many individuals, perpetuating itself through the culture. For example, a new medical discovery, such as immunization, may emerge suddenly at a strategic moment in the cultural evolution of the species. Variations in the structure or form of an idea may generate new or more specialized versions. Or an idea may prove to be short lived. If the idea survives, it may quickly spread to different places throughout the world, finally settling into a long period of stability.

Many forms of cultural and social behavior, including music and art, follow these same selective paths. Certain forms of expression are adopted by different societies based on their mythologies and cultural values.

Overall, cultures may resist or deny various rituals or trends as inappropriate for their particular society, while others may embrace them as constructive. Some forms of cultural expression may become more specialized, while others are more diverse. Still others may wither and die. And the same may be true for entire cultures or societies.

However, the flow of cultural ideas is not always consistent with Darwinism. For example, false or impenetrable ideas are routinely preserved and circulated in libraries around the world. And they may remain unchallenged for centuries.

Some ideas, such as alchemy, remained active before being abandoned. While other ideas such as atonal music were ignored initially, then revived when they were later recognized for their worth. Still other ideas tend to reappear in cycles, such as trends in fashion design or financial investment.

A new species arises through symbiosis, or when a group of organisms splits off from the others, caused by genetic mutation, a sudden change in the environment, or by geographical separation. Until recently, this was the only known way a species could originate. We have all evolved from the same ancestor. Excluding recent developments in genetic engineering, each of the 40 million species in the world today has formed in this way.

New ideas or concepts may follow a similar pattern of merging, or of splitting off from old ideas, caused by significant cultural changes. Although, unlike the origin of a species, new ideas may emerge unpredictably in different places and times, and in different places at the same time. The combining of disparate ideas, concepts and things occurs at every scale in the culture, from horse and carriage, to corporate mergers.

Biology and culture are evolving at the same time, but at different rates. For humans, there is a much higher rate of change in cultural evolution than in biological evolution. In general, genes mutate slowly, while memes move rapidly through the culture.

There are consequences associated with these differences. For example, a well-publicized concern in today’s world is the rapid expansion of technology. It is an historical problem that a high rate of change in technology has often outstripped society’s capacity to manage the effects that technology will have on the culture. This has probably been true from the beginning of humankind.

Throughout history, most individuals died before they could reproduce. Only a comparatively small number of individuals have survived, passing on their genes to the next generation. Similarly, it is probable that most ideas have not found their way into the deep patterns of human culture.

Today, most humans who survive the first few weeks of infancy live long enough to reproduce. And because of the increased capacity in processing and distribution of information, most ideas are available to anybody with access to a library, radio, television, or computer.

During the embryonic development of an organism, genetic material is copied from cell to cell. During this process, an anomaly in copying may occur. This copying ‘error’, or mutation, results in a genetic change in the organism from the previous generation, depending on which gene is affected. Mutations and endosymbiosis are the primary ways in which genetic changes occur in creatures and plants. And they account for the biological diversity and complexity among species, and within a given species.

Similarly, the storing and processing of an idea in the brain, or the transfer of an idea from one person to another, may cause the idea to be modified just enough to enhance or diminish its survivability.

Like genes, ideas related to everyday considerations such as family, work, or recreation tend to be exchanged and circulated within a small population, mixing and combining with other ideas to create conceptual diversity.

Like species, concepts such as those related to politics, art, law, science, and religion evolve on the scale of society and culture. These ideas tend to originate suddenly, stabilize for long periods in which they may become specialized, then split off to form new concepts, or die out altogether.

Ultimately, concepts and ideas must survive the test of time. Those that are able to withstand the conditions of change within the society, are the ideas that will ultimately endure.

Environmental pressures that cause memes to survive and reproduce, or to die out, include: environmental disasters, loss or gain of natural resources, rates of information exchange, knowledge, aesthetics, and technological, economic, social, political, legal, and ethical stresses.

The Nature and Inquiry Artists Group (2006) John Holland, Margot Kelley, Amy Robinson, Nita Sturiale, Ron Wallace

[Advanced] – to see a unique comparison of biological and cultural evolution by the Nature and Inquiry Artists Group, go to Cultural Evolution.


One Comment on “Cultural Evolution”

  1. Osama December 15, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    I have a confession to make.Thank you for coinmetmng on my blog, but it was by lurking here, at yours, very early this morning, that I got the idea for doing this quiz!Ooops.I always read here – sorry I don’t comment so often.

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