As humanity goes through a convergence of planetary-scale crises, we need to cultivate the ability to see, understand, shape, and guide cultural change at all possible scales. This is the task for a global network of culture design labs.
I was deeply inspired to read these focus essays by David Sloan Wilson and Harvey Whitehouse on the importance of field sites for cultural evolution research in biology and anthropology. It is of foundational significance that cultural evolution be studied “in the wild” to inform and complement theoretical inquiries and lab experiments.
Just as it would be inadequate to try studying biology without ever going into the field, how can we claim any legitimate understanding of social behavior for animals (humans included) if we don’t observe them in their rich and messy grandeur — in real-world settings where an increasing amount of data is already becoming available thanks to the Big Data explosion of digital media. We can leverage the incredible new capacities for social research with the ubiquity of user data to revolutionize social science and the humanities.
And the time to begin is now.
Humanity is going through an unprecedented period of global change. With a population explosion in the last century; cascading instabilities in the global economy due to processes of globalization; chronic problems like poverty, inequality, mass violence, and corruption; and a destabilizing planetary climate that threatens our fledgling civilization with risk of collapse; now is the time to build a rigorous design science for intentional social change.
I have written about this elsewhere under the name of Culture Design. It is now possible to combine the major domains of complexity science, evolutionary studies, and the cognitive/behavioral sciences to establish an integrative framework for the study of cultural evolution. Add the skills of many practitioner domains — public policy, prevention science, public health, environmental management, and group facilitation, to name a few — and this scientific body of knowledge can become a design practice.
My own work is dedicated to the establishment of a global network for doing this work. I call each focused project a “culture design lab” where dedicated effort is made to (1) identify a systemic social challenge of great urgency and importance; (2) bring together the requisite knowledge from many different fields; (3) design of group collaboration processes to apply this knowledge to the problem that has been identified; and (4) setting up appropriate systems for monitoring and analysis to inform, shape, and guide the change effort.
This is what David Sloan Wilson calls the “wise management of evolutionary processes.” When we understand how things have come to be the way they are (and can apply a whole-system knowledge about how things are changing), it becomes possible to influence and shape the selection criteria that determine fitness for the social norms, cultural practices, and institutional structures that arise throughout the change process.
Imagine how humanity can benefit from efforts like this being done in the open, with full transparency, and guided by the best scientific knowledge available.
This is demanded of us to face the current predicaments of humanity faces as we navigate the threats on our collective horizon. We have learned so much about hundreds of different knowledge domains related to the global convergence of crises (think about all that is now known in the 120+ sciences that study Earth Systems — geomorphology, soil science, atmospheric chemistry, plate tectonics, and so on — as a subset of a much larger knowledge landscape). Let us go forth together and build a community for research and design practice that applies all of this knowledge to the challenges we are facing in the world.
I look forward to active dialogue and debate with members from the Cultural Evolution Society. Even in its humble beginnings we can see an outline of inspiring possibilities. There are already more than 1600 researchers, students, and practitioners signed up from more than 50 nations around the world, affiliated with several hundred universities, and active in more than 400 other professional societies (based on member profile data, to be published soon).
How can this immense collective of diverse knowledge be applied to the grand challenges of living in a 21st Century world? That is the question I would like to see answered in ten thousand ways throughout the next fifty years.
But first, we need to build the network of field sites… that is the task now before us.
Onward, fellow humans.
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