Cultural Evolution

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  • Please note there seem to be 2 distinct meanings, one is the general notion that human culture evolves and learns over time, while the other refers to a specific 'modern synthesis' between genetic and cultural evolution.


Peter Turchin:

“Cultural Evolution is a new interdisciplinary field whose intellectual roots go back only to the 1970s (unless, of course, you count Charles Darwin; but in a sense any new development in evolutionary science can be traced to Darwin). In this new field, “culture” is defined as information, which can affect human behavior, that is socially transmitted—through books and manuals, by teaching, or simply by observing and imitation. Cultural variants are information packages that cause people to behave in alternative ways. Cultural Evolution, then, studies how and why frequencies of cultural variants change with time, just as biological evolution focuses on the changing frequencies of genetic variants.” (


1. Kevin Jon Fernlund:

"Humans individually or collectively learn new things all the time, and they may pass on this newly ac-quired knowledge to the next generation through formal or informal means. This is precisely how cultural evolution, or what one might call Lamarckian evolution, works. The idea was discovered and given full expression by the Enlightenment.

The modern idea that cultures have evolved and that they have the capability to progress, however, did not originate with the advent of critical history during the Enlightenment, marked by the eighteenth-century histories of David Hume, William Robertson, and Edward Gibbon. Rather, the idea formed earlier in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, when English philosopher Francis Bacon looked back to Antiquity and opined that modern inventions have set the modern world apart from the ancient world.

Bacon observes:

- We should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely, print-ing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world: first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation; and innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

Bacon was making the case for the Moderns in the Ancients versus the Moderns debate, which grew out of the Renaissance, with the rediscovery of classical learning, and intensified during the Scientific Revolution. Modern Europeans, Bacon argued, could see farther and better than their ancestors because they had powerful new optical instruments, such as the telescope and the micro-scope. Crucially, because of the scientific method (the testing of hypotheses), the Moderns had the tools and means to think better than the An-cients. Not to be outdone by the scientists, scholars also developed the humanistic method to think better, which perhaps no one expressed better than did the Victorian educator Matthew Arnold. In an essay entitled “Culture and Anarchy” (1869), he wrote that culture ought to be the pursuit of our total perfection by means of get-ting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.

Implicit in Bacon’s argument for the superiority of the present over the past is the notion of progress, that knowledge could be increased, and that society, therefore, could be improved upon over what it had been before."


2. Peter Turchin:

“It was during the 1970s when evolutionary scientists started to ask whether the quantitative tools developed for the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, which had become broadly accepted by that point, could also be useful for studying the evolution of human societies. These pioneers were largely working independently of one another.

Following the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and On Human Nature (1979) E. O. Wilson teamed up with Charles Lumsden to publish

  • 1) Genes, Mind and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981). That book became one of the three foundational texts of Cultural Evolution.
  • 2) The second foundational work was written by the geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza and the theoretical biologist Marcus Feldman, Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach, also published in 1981.
  • 3) The third, and ultimately the most influential book, Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985), was published by the anthropologist Robert Boyd and the ecologist Peter Richerson. This book summarized their papers, written in the 1970s, that developed a mathematical theory of what they called “dual inheritance,” a coevolutionary process between genes and culture.”



Prosocial norms as example of Cultural Evolution

Peter Turchin:

“Let’s talk specifically about “prosocial” norms that induce people to behave in more cooperative ways. Social cooperation is the all-important glue that enables societies to produce public goods, things like public roads, clean air, and low crime. Public goods benefit all members of a community, or the whole society, but are costly to produce. As is well known, cooperation is highly problematic from the theoretical point of view, because selfish agents gladly benefit from public goods, but refuse to contribute to them (“defect”). How humans evolved the capacity to overcome this “Cooperation Dilemma” is a big question, which doesn’t yet have a universally accepted answer. But most researchers agree that prosocial norms play a very important role in whatever theory that we will eventually develop to solve this puzzle.

As an example of cooperation, consider meat-sharing, which is the norm in most foraging societies. Meat-sharing has numerous benefits for the group within which it is practiced. First, any particular hunter, no matter how skilled, is not always successful in bringing home game. Sharing ensures that everybody has a moderate amount of meat every day. Not sharing results in long spells of famine, interspersed with feasts (with a portion of the kill spoiling, or being wasted in other ways).

Second, put yourself in the moccasins of a hunter. You have an interest in the well-being of others in your tribe. There is that old-timer who is not as spry as he used to be, and can’t chase the game in the bush. But he is an amazing repository of knowledge that can save the whole tribe when a drought strikes (read the story about an old man Paralji in The Secret of Our Success). Or that pregnant woman, whose husband was killed in a hunting accident. When her son grows up, he will stand together with your children against the tribe’s enemies.

Thus, the whole tribe, including you and your descendants, benefits from meat sharing. But when you bring that yummy warthog from a successful hunt, there is a terrible temptation not to share it with others. It’s the Cooperative Dilemma all over again. The benefits of meat sharing are spread thinly over all. Its consequences are often deferred into distant future. Meanwhile, pigging out on the juicy warthog steak is here and now.

This is why you need social norms to help you stick to the straight and narrow. Such “cultural-institutional technologies” make sharing psychologically easier and prevent free-riding. One kind of such a social technology is meat taboos. Among some Kalahari foragers, for example, “the hunter himself could only eat the ribs and a shoulder blade; the rest of the animal was taboo for him. The hunter’s wife received the meat and fat around the animal’s hindquarters, which she had to cook openly and share with other women (only). Taboos prohibited young males from eating anything except abdominal walls, kidneys, and genitals.” These taboos essentially guaranteed that a large carcass would be widely distributed across the whole band.

Evolution of prosocial norms is a big subject in The Secret of Our Success. It is, indeed, one of the major contributions from Cultural Evolution to the question of how complex societies are organized and function. Of course, the study of social norms and institutions is a well-developed subfield of social sciences (for example, the New Institutional Economics). But institutionalists in social sciences tend to focus more on the “institutions as rules of the game” aspects. Yet, no matter how well an institution is designed, it will not ensure cooperation if people don’t internalize prosocial norms. What is needed for rules to work is that conforming to the norm becomes a preference that has intrinsic, rather than instrumental value. In other words, people need to feel good about doing right. To put it crudely, their brains need to be rewired to experience pleasure while sacrificing time, effort, food, money, etc. for the common good. Biology (genetic influences on behavior, physiological and neurophysiological mechanisms, and so on) plays a very important role in this. We leave in exciting times, as science makes great strides in understanding such social and biological influences on human behavior, and what makes our wonderful complex societies work (or not). And Cultural Evolution provides us with an indispensable set of tools to untangle the interactions between the social and biological factors.” (

The increased speed of cultural revolution: Class One to Class Two

George Smiley provided us with an excerpt from Critical Path by Bucky Fuller:

“Class-one evolution had human fathers and mothers for multimillions of years serving as the memory-bank authority that showed children what they could safely eat and how to communicate. The parents told the children what they could or could not do to get along with the “system” into which they were born. The parents told the children what they should or should not believe. To history’s children the parents were “the authority.”

The myriad esoteric, illiterate ways in which the parents communicated to their children were parroted by the children. Thus were esoteric dialects proliferated until their many progressive deviations multiplied the many initially different world languages. It was class-one evolution that in the mid-1920s disclosed to the world’s children and their parents that the voice coming over the radIto had more up-to-the-minute information regarding many more subjects than had the parents. The parents did not tell the children that the radio people had more authoritative information—it was self-evident to the children, who witnessed their parents running next door to the neighbors to tell them what the radio people had just told them.

The people who were selected as broadcasters by the radio stations were selected for the “commonality of their diction” in contradistinction to the millions of esoteric jargons with which the parents had communicated.

The radio people were also picked for the size and richness of their vocabularies and the facility with which they drew upon such conventionalized vocabularies.

Because it was self-evident to the children that the radio people were greater authorities than their parents, the children now emulated the diction and vocabularies of the radio people. Not to be belittled in their children’s estimation, the parents learned the commonly accepted radio people’s pronunciation of an ever-enlarging conventional vocabulary. Within half a century (two human generations) this completely altered and improved the world’s languages.

The speed of sound is approximately 700 miles per hour. The speed of light is 700 million miles per hour. Sound can travel only in conducting mediums—for instance, in the Earth’s atmosphere. Electromagnetic radiation can travel indefinitely through Universe. The amount of information humans can acquire visually is a millionfold greater in range, speed, and meaning than is the information they acquire aurally.

The university and college students who became the first to make world news as dissidents in 1965 and 1966 were born in the years TV came into the American home. The class of ‘66ers were the first human beings to be raised by the “third parent,” whose TV voice and TV presence were often heard and felt by the children much more than those of the two blood parents. TV daily briefed them visually—ergo, vividly—on the world around news, regarding the world’s continual aches, pains, disasters, Olympic triumphs, etc.

The young were saying, ‘I know that Dad and Mom love me to pieces, and I love them to pieces, but they don’t know what it’s all about. They come home from the office or golf links or hairdressers and sit down to beer and small talk or ‘sitcoms.’ They have nothing to do with our going to Vietnam.

They have nothing to do with our going to the Moon. They have nothing to do with anything except earning a living—and spending it on TV advertised goods. The whole world is in great trouble. My compassion is for all the people anywhere who are in trouble. Since the older people don’t seem to know what is going on and are too preoccupied with irrelevancies, I and my contemporaries must do our own thinking and find out what needs to be done to make the world work.’

As we wrote in the opening lines of our ‘Self-Disciplines,’ Chapter 4, up to the time of the radio the older people were always saying to the young, ‘Never mind what you think. Listen. We are trying to teach you.’

With the TV making it clear to the young that the parents did not know much about anything and were not ‘the authority,’ the young, responding to intuition, said to themselves, ‘I am going to have to do my own thinking and take my own actions.’ Nonetheless, they were utterly unskilled in world affairs, highly idealistic, and easily exploitable.

The abrupt, spontaneous historical events on the Berkley campus of the University of California and elsewhere occasioned youth’s discarding forever the authority of their elders. The Class of 1966 shocked the world by saying that it felt no special loyalty to its families, its university, its state, or its nation. The youth of the Class of 1966 were thought by the oldsters to be shockingly immoral and lacking in idealism. Not so!

They were as idealistic and full of compassion as any child has ever been, but their loyalty was to all humanity. They were no longer the victims of local class or racial bias. Their idealism was at first skillfully exploited by the psycho-guerrilla warfaring of the communist-capitalist secret operations. “

Fuller goes on to explain how the invention of the computer and many additional technological discoveries have inadvertently advanced social evolution without the conscious intervention of any human beings.

Here is another excerpt. It explains how class-one and class-two evolution are related. Class-one evolution contains class-two which flows from conscious human intentions.

“Occurring after millions of years of absolute unquestioned caring for the young by the authority of the elders, this metaphysical cutoff—like its physical counterpart, the cutting of umbilical cord after the child is born and has access to its own oxygen—occurred when humanity had acquired enough relevantly critical information to be able to proceed on its own initiatives divested of the many misinterpretations by the elders as to the significance of total information. This cut-off experience is typical of all class-one evolution, which is always transcendental to all class-two evolution—to human planning, contriving, manipulation, or corruption.

Also typical of class-one evolution are the two trends we have mentioned so many times in previous chapters— the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed—i.e., ephemeralization — accomplished within ever-less increments of time—acceleration.

These coordinate class-one evolutionary trendings, which have been manifest for three quarters of a century, are as yet unrecognized by any world economists, heads of state, or business leaders. Though there is a popular intuition that acceleration may be in evidence, it is not officially heeded. Individuals amongst political and business leaders are often aware of changing conditions, such as that which makes suddenly available a pocket calculator or a quartz watch. They do not comprehend that these individual ‘goodies’ are parts of overall ephemeralization and acceleration trending that, within only three quarters of a century, has converted those enjoying an adequate and pleasing standard of living from less than 1 percent of all humanity in 1900 to 60 percent of all humanity in 1980, the latter enjoying an even higher standard of living than had been enjoyed before 1900 by any of the world’s kings or financial potentates of all history. Class-one evolution alone accounts for the doubling within this century of the life ‘expectancy’ of that 60 percent of all humanity which, by 1980, has had its standard of living so spectacularly advanced."

(fb thread, September 2019)

More information

* Article: Fernlund, Kevin Jon. 2020. “The Great Battle of the Books between the Cultural Evolutionists and the Cultural Relativists: from the Beginning of Infinity to the End of History.” Journal of Big History 4(3): 6-30. doi


See: Battle Between the Cultural Evolutionists and the Cultural Relativists