Humanity is now confronted with new challenges unlike anything we have experienced before. Our evolved history as a species has not prepared us for what is happening now. It is time to start seeing culture as a complex system that evolves according to Darwinian principles.
What do international terrorism, human-caused climate change, and the rise of speculative bubbles in finance have in common? At their heart, each is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon that is often confused with its more superficial elements associated with religion, politics, technology, or economics. There are hidden “governing dynamics” that arise as ideologies and worldviews, diverse modes of social organization with associated norms and practices, and the foundational ontologies and epistemologies that define what is real and knowable for a given society.
Humanity has gone from subsistence living where our daily survival was a struggle to weave healthy relationships with the natural ecosystems around us to one of living within social niches of our own creation. Long ago, it was rocks carved into spear tips that determined our ability to acquire food. Now it is the use of fossil fuels extracted by large machines, which are then sent to refineries for modification and redistribution, eventually finding their way into chemical fertilizers used to extract nutrients from the soil.
All of this arose through the processes of cultural evolution.
Every major challenge in the world today is deeply and profoundly cultural — and cultural systems are always complex. They are comprised of many interacting parts with critical interdependencies that are not reducible to usefully meaningful modular parts. There are threshold effects, phase transitions, chaotic attractors, various kinds of self-organization, and all are deeply dynamic and emergent as evolutionary processes at the intersection of culture and the environment.
If we are to have any hope of tackling chronic problems like ecological destruction, political corruption, misinformation campaigns, or ethnic conflicts that escalate to violence, we will need to bridge the foundational knowledge areas of complexity science and the convergent approach to social change known as cultural evolutionary studies together in a coherent framework for research, education, and design practice. One way to do this is to think of Society as a Platform in the same way that software development requires “platform solutions” in its current capacities of sophisticated developments.
We need to think about social transformation in rigorous and concrete language — with a strong candidate being the characterization of what comprises the core operating systems for a given society along with the logical outcomes of running them in the world as it is today. For example, what does it mean that pursuit of growth (measured in Gross Domestic Product) is the modus operandi for national and international economic policies? How this this logic play out in a world where the human population has crescendoed beyond seven billion living souls with all the requisite consumption required to fill their stomachs, provide shelter from the elements, and aspire toward the high materialistic excess of glamour in the media spectacles of worship for the super rich?
An operating system like this is built on core assumptions — humans treated as separate from nature; material acquisition equated with happiness and well-being; natural limits don’t exist; and so forth. Sadly, such assumptions are often deeply flawed. Playing them out in the operating system of a 21st Century society will inevitably lead to overshoot and collapse.
How is the study of Society as Platform (with cultural complexity at its core) being practiced now? What are its strengths and weaknesses, capacities and inadequacies? Is the state of knowledge sufficient to bring coherence, then deployment, as the Earth’s climate continues to warm from fossil fuel combustion and inequality becomes so extreme around the world that civil wars and violence hang ominous like storm clouds on the horizon? These are questions we feel an urgent need to ask.
When my own inquiries into this topic began more than a decade ago, I found myself bridging between the fields of complexity science, earth system science, and the cognitive sciences. I was on a mission to find the patterns of consilience where insights converge into holistic understandings. What I learned along the way is that the most powerful tools for studying culture — construction of network graphs using the tools of data analytics; ethnographic studies to cultivate richly “thick” interpretive frameworks; discourse analysis to reveal frame semantic structures that help societies make sense of the world; and much more — is that cultures evolve as emergent systems of interacting complexity.
There is no piecemeal way to study this. The disciplinary silos of academia have failed to deliver systemic insights. Practitioners tend to carve up the world into issue silos that do more to reveal how they construct their personal identities than they reveal what the leverage points are for strategic interventions that might actually work.
It is time to take this observation seriously. I created the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution to do this very thing. My collaborators and I are now working out the design intentions for entire ecosystems of social learning to promote ecological and societal regeneration. We are taking the bioregion as our physical geography. It will function as the body of our platform for cultural change that becomes increasingly intentional and holistic through the applications of integrative social science.
Humanity is in the process of becoming evolution capable of knowing itself. Never before in the history of life on Earth has there been a part of the evolutionary process that could abstract and conceptualize, experiment with and discern how evolution works. Now that we have this knowledge, we can apply it to ourselves in a collaborative dance of cosmic emergence.
This is the only way we avoid self-termination as a species. Humanity has already changed the chemical and biological processes of the Earth at planetary scales. We may well have already put the nail in the coffin of runaway climate change that takes us down with millions of other species. We cannot know how likely (or rather unlikely) it is that we find the path of regeneration that restores planetary health. But still we must try.
Time is of the essence. Let us begin in earnest.
Onward, fellow humans.