The Complexity of Cultural Evolution
What does the ecological crisis have in common with global poverty? How does politics relate to economics? The study of history? The changing landscape of technology, arts, and culture? Why is there not a coherent School of Social Sciences that brings themes like these together in one place? Answers can only be found by synthesizing two of the most important areas of scientific work in the last 150 years — in the fields of evolutionary studies and complexity science.
All of the most interesting and important topics of concern in the world today (How does consciousness work? What is the human mind? Is it possible to restore health to deteriorated ecosystems? Can we create political systems that promote widespread health and well-being?) involve vast networks of relationships interacting with each other — what are called complex adaptive systems in the lingo of complexity science.
Familiar examples include things like the weather with its inherent unpredictability or a market economy that has no central locus of control. The thing that makes a system “complex” is that patterns arise through the interactions that are not reducible to its constituent parts. You cannot explain the weather simply by describing what water molecules or solar radiation on their own are capable of doing. Neither can you explain an economy by describing how individuals engage in barter or exchange if they happen to be in a market-based society.
Importantly, complex adaptive systems are always far from equilibrium. They are not static. And the only way to make sense of their behavior is to computationally model how the various parts interact with each other dynamically — which leads to the importance of evolution. Emphasis on the word adaptive in complex adaptive systems gives an inkling of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, where the biological traits of an organism that happen to be adaptive in its environment tend to occur more frequently than traits that are not adaptive.
Over time (since living systems are also dynamic), the evolutionary pathway for biology is traced by the intersections of adaptive fitness in environments that might be changing quickly or slowly. All biological systems are complex (they have many interacting parts with emergent phenomena that are not reducible) and they are adaptive (as natural selection plays out in changing environments).
So what does this say about cultural evolution? How can we apply this basic finding from biology to the study of history and economics, politics, and environmental management? Well it turns out that researchers who study cultural evolution — and there are now nearly 2,000 of them in the newly formed Cultural Evolution Society that I was tasked to help create — have brought the mathematical toolkit used in complexity science to the study of cultural change in human and non-human species.
The earliest inklings of this synthesis go back to a debate a century ago when foundations were being laid for the study of population genetics. At that time, statisticians were actively grappling with questions about how to account for genetic variation in biological organisms (and this was before the invention of digital computers). They developed accounting systems for biological traits that matured continuously through the early-to-mid 20th Century.
In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, there was a group of cultural evolution researchers who translated these statistical tools for the distinct mechanisms of “selection” that play out for behavioral repertoires and other cultural phenomena in human and non-human cultures. Among them were Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman at Stanford, Peter J. Richerson at UC-Davis, and Robert Boyd of Arizona State University. These efforts culminated in the publishing of Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach in 1981 and Culture and the Evolutionary Process in 1988.
It was during this same time period that the field of complexity research was getting underway — with the multidisciplinary Santa Fe Institute being established in 1984 to explore the mathematical patterns of complex adaptive systems across many domains of study. They organized workshops and symposia on economics, ecology, urban studies, epidemiology, and more to discover how complex systems evolve and change using the mathematical tools of fractal geometry, network science, differential equations, and computational methods.
As I have written elsewhere, the time is urgently upon us to synthesize and apply what is known about complexity and evolution. The fate of humanity literally depends on our ability to do this. In a time of unprecedented exponential change, we must learn to manage complex systems as they evolve in real time.
We need to firstly understand that cultural systems evolve according to Darwinian principles. The interested reader can find many books explaining why this is the case. Here are a few to get you started:
- The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution by Joe Henrich
- Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Best Cooperators on Earth by Peter Turchin
- Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture by Alex Mesoudi
- Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb
- Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm
- Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language & Evolution edited by Peter Richerson and Morten Christiansen
This is a mere sampling — there are now hundreds of books on cultural evolutionary studies that one can dive into. Important for this article is to note that (i) the field of cultural evolution is quite mature at this point in time; (ii) it has advanced rapidly since incorporating mathematical tools used in the study of complexity; and (iii)the world is in flux with tremendous need for this body of knowledge to be brought to bear on our global challenges in the 21st Century.
This is the work of culture design.
The most pressing challenges in the world have foundational cultural components. Global warming arose from the false illusions of human separation from nature and the perception of endless bounty for natural resources at the beginning of the industrial era. Terrorism is cultivated in landscapes where people feel deep-seated anxiety and economic desperation — which arise from particular models of colonial (or post-colonial) exploitation that have unique cultural histories.
Similarly, the spread of rugged individualism as a cultural construct treats human beings as if they are separate from their communities, inherently selfish, and venerable for engaging in psychopathic behaviors like wealth hoarding. In each case, the real state of power is culture and the only viable solutions involve the intentional management of cultural evolutionary change.
But we cannot even start to think this way if we don’t recognize how human cultures operate as complex systems. Only by learning to see that emergent patterns arise through the interactions of constituent parts will we begin to discern how evolutionary change is taking us closer to planetary-scale collapse — and that design practices will be needed that make use of what is now known from cultural evolutionary studies.
Onward, fellow humans.
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