The Grand Synthesis of Biology and Society

This is a map of affiliations with other fields for members of the Cultural Evolution Society.

And… we have lift off! The Cultural Evolution Society is now off the ground and ready to soar. We have an ambitious agenda to bring much-needed synthesis to biology, the social sciences, and humanities. This is what our founding members called for in a survey they filled out as we set out last fall.

It is the rallying cry for birthing the field of cultural evolution with intellectual and cultural diversity that spans the globe. We have taken great care to ensure this diversity is present in the leadership structure of our governing body. Now we are ready to dive into the important matters of

  1. Planning the first conference (scheduled for September 13–15, 2017);
  2. Launching an open access scientific journal;
  3. Mapping out a web of research agendas; and
  4. Building up the organizational capacity needed to coordinate all of this and more.

This is an exciting time to be a student embarking on studies into the social dynamics of cultural systems. It is a fortuitous time for researchers to expand their inquiries and take collaboration to new levels. And it is an opportune time for social change practitioners to incorporate the best that science has to offer as they tackle problems and issues in real communities around the world.

Read on to learn more.

Origins of the Society

Last year, we put out a call for founding members — and quickly grew to more than 1000 researchers and social change practitioners in less than a month. We are now more than 1600 strong and ready to get down to business. Our volunteer steering committee organized elections, laid groundwork for bylaws and organizational design, ran a survey to identify the grand challenges for the field, and have now completed a transition of leadership to the newly formed executive committee that took office on September 1st.

Cultural evolution is a field that studies the historic development of all social behavior. It takes the tools and frameworks of biological evolution and adapts them to the patterns of cultural change — both for human societies and across the non-human world. It’s researchers study everything from anatomical changes that enable tool use to cooperative behaviors that give rise to the complex organization for social insects.

This kind of work is deeply interdisciplinary. It requires sophisticated practices of social organization in its own right to tackle the hard problems of cultural studies across such a great diversity of situations. How is it that everyday people can get “radicalized” to become terrorists? What are the factors that make technology innovation flourish in regional economies?

Questions like these have historically been approached within the silos of traditional academic fields. Adequately addressing them requires approaches that are integrated and holistic. Our solutions — so far — are not. They are fragmented and piecemeal because the knowledge we use to approach them is fragmented and piecemeal.

Now is the time to navigate the many islands of scientific knowledge and weave them into a constellation of landmarks in the same landscape. This is one of the primary tasks for our newly formed Cultural Evolution Society.

An Archipelago of Disciplines

If a map of knowledge for all the sciences were created, what shape might it take? Would it be like a spider web with linkages in multiple directions for every node? Or perhaps a labyrinth of maze-like pathways leading to lots of dead ends?

We asked this question in a more narrow domain — for the 351 members of our fledgling Cultural Evolution Society who provided information, we gathered data on the other associations and societies they are currently active in. This led to the map above with its distinctive archipelago structure. It is like a vast sea of possibilities populated with branching arms of clustered islands where people already gather.

The field of cultural evolution is uncommonly vast in its meshwork of relationships to other fields. This creates an advantage for the mission identified by our membership last year when we conducted a survey of grand challenges for the field.

The message was loud and clear that the highest priority for our community is to achieve knowledge synthesis across biology, the social sciences, and humanities.

This is a mission we don’t take lightly, which is why we inquired into the existing relationships our members have with other fields. What we found was that even with a response rate of 30% (at the time there were 1200 members, we now have more than 1600 enrolled and grow by the week) it was clear that our community is strongly positioned to have a go at it.

The image above shows roughly 400 other societies and professional associations. The lines between nodes represent individuals who are members of both, which is why each “arm” in the graphic has the intuitive structure of mapping to its larger disciplinary thread — the sub-fields of psychology forming one branch; animal behavior research for another; anthropology and evolutionary studies having their own; and so forth.

All these fields are ready to merge. What will it take to combine them?

On the Need for A New Society

Why create a new academic society when so many other societies already exist? The answer is that the current societies are like a vast archipelago of islands with little communication among them, as we can see with our own membership in the stark image above. The Cultural Evolution Society can serve to unite the fragmented disciplinary structure that currently exists.

Indeed, this is exactly the 21st Century synthesis that is so clearly needed.

It follows that the Cultural Evolution Society is in a strong position to perform an integrative function that is not provided by most other academic societies. Members will encounter a much broader array of perspectives than they are accustomed to. The result will not be a Tower of Babel, however, because everyone will be speaking a “common language” provided by evolutionary theory. This is how the major branches of the biological sciences such as molecular biology, development, and ecology are already unified.

A Diverse Membership and Governing Body

All academic societies should strive to include a diversity of backgrounds and views in their membership and leadership. This goal is an imperative for a society dedicated to the study of cultural evolution. The CES is therefore taking special steps to include four kinds of diversity: 1) Gender; 2) Age; 3) Academic background; and 4) Nationality and Ethnicity.

To make sure that diversity is represented in the leadership in addition to the membership, we formed special committees around bylaws and electoral policy in preparation for our inaugural election — drafting a diversity mandate appropriate to the mission and agenda outlined above.

Meeting our goals for each kind of diversity requires a special recruitment effort. An effort to recruit women increased their proportion from 22% to its current value of 37%. A similar effort is being mounted to include graduate students and early-career scientists in addition to mid- and late-career scientists as well as those hailing from different regions of the world.

While the diversity of academic backgrounds shown above is impressive, some backgrounds are still under-represented. As an example, it is important to recruit members who study cultural evolution in non-human species and to make sure that their work is facilitated and integrated with the study of human cultural evolution. As another example, it is important to recruit members in the humanities, who might not otherwise think of joining a scientific society.

Our current international representation (54 nations) was the result of a special effort during our recruitment of the founding members. Our goal is to create a veritable intellectual United Nations that includes all nations and a diversity of ethnic identities not represented by national identities. We prepared the ballot for our inaugural election to be structured in a manner that ensures half of the elected leadership will be women and that at least four representatives will represent each of the non-Western regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

The inaugural election came to completion on August 22nd, 2016. Results can be viewed here. The new Executive Committee comprised of a president, secretary, treasurer, male and female student representative, and eight members-at-large from different fields and regions of the world will take office on September 1st — as outlined in our elections manual.

An Activist Agenda

The steering committee has concentrated on the creation of the Cultural Evolution Society and is leaving the agenda of the society in the hands of the first elected officers. It is clear, however, that the society will go beyond the standard journal-and-annual-conference format of an academic society to address the grand challenges that it has already begun to identify.

The top themes in our Grand Challenge analysis show that the community organizing itself around this society is deeply embedded in the global context of change that is shaping humanity at the planetary scale in the early part of the 21st Century.

New approaches are needed for scientific institutions to achieve synthesis across disciplinary silos while providing essential inputs into real-world design challenges in a world that is increasingly dominated by processes of exponential, convergent change.

This is an activist agenda, perhaps not in the normal political sense, but rather as a motivation recognizing the urgency of threats ranging from global warming to economic insecurity. The complexities of globalization now jeopardize financial systems, ecological systems, political systems, and social systems. Challenges like these are systemic and will not be solvable using piecemeal approaches.

We are excited to serve as a catalyst for both academic synthesis and synthetic solutions to real-world problems. And we encourage others to join us as we navigate and weave the many diverse archipelagos of science to provide holistic solutions in this time of great need.

Onward, fellow humans.

Joe Brewer
Project Coordinator
The Cultural Evolution Society

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