The Field of Cultural Evolution is Vital Now

A meshwork of “hate” sites have parasitized our major media outlets.

As you are fully aware, there are big things happening in the world right now. I have been reflecting on the roles that our field — cultural evolutionary studies — can fill in what are demonstrably troubled times.

The image above was taken from this article in the Guardian about the hidden patterns that lurk within the vast information networks of the internet. It reveals a decentralized web of authoritarian, hateful, and fear-based rhetoric against women, Jews, Muslims, and people of color.

This meshwork of influence has grown organically throughout the lifetime of the World Wide Web without anyone seeing it and few knowing that even a part of it might exist. And fewer still exploring whether it might be an influence on the world. It has parasitized the “knowledge ecologies” for news and information — with unmeasured and largely unknown consequences on global events.

One of the major insights garnered from research like this is that many of the best and brightest social scientists, data analysts, computer scientists, and artificial intelligence researchers are working for large corporations to develop algorithms that impact cultural evolution in huge ways. Yet there is no external body holding them accountable for what they create.

Nearly all of this is hidden from view. It has been privatized. A great deal of effort is required to make even a tiny portion of it visible. I share this to convey that the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world has been supported by very subtle patterns of cultural transmission. Incentive structures and institutional practices have played a role. But most of it has arisen emergently, without central guidance or control.

Most of the phenomena giving rise to these systemic patterns fall within the realm of expertise for our field. Cultural transmission. Social learning. Evolution of social networks. Institutional change. The role of technology. Social norms and their effects. And so on.

I am writing today to offer an inquiry for our fledgling community:

How shall we as a global research community in cultural evolution be of service here?

What can we do to increase discernment, improve accountability, and help our societies (with members residing in more than 50 nations) to navigate the complex and deeply interdependent threats of living in a globalized world?

We will host our first conference in September next year. Between now and then there will be many opportunities to apply what we already collectively know about cultural change to environmental challenges, economic policies, matters of governance and public affairs, and more.

But our field is not ready to do these things. We still have basic groundwork to put in place regarding fundamental research questions and educational policies. As 2016 comes to an end, I am sitting with the seriousness of threats like global warming and extreme inequality. I am aware that, according to the Stockholm Resilience Institute, we have likely crossed four of the nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating range for the global economy. And I wonder how we can achieve collective actions in a time of deep polarization and divisions that only intensify with each passing year.

These reflections are mine personally. They do not represent the Cultural Evolution Society overall or its leadership. But I felt compelled as the coordinator tasked with birthing this society to leave you with these questions to ponder. These things are happening around us right now. How will we step up to the challenges as a community? What are the right steps for us to take in the coming months and years?


Joe Brewer
Project Coordinator
The Cultural Evolution Society

This letter was originally sent to the members of the Cultural Evolution Society that I am helping create. Learn more about it here.

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