Sunday, October 7, 2018

Cultural Evolution and Human Progress

This is an old one, from the early days of New Savanna, April 21, 2010. I'm bumping it to the top because, 1) Steven Pinker has, for better or worse, given the idea of progress new life, and 2) the recent creation of the Cultural Evolution Society has given that topic new life as well. It is my guess, however, that many members of that society are likely to have no truck with the idea of progress, but some may. Who knows?
Thank you Robert Wright.
Why am I thanking Robert Wright? Because he wrote Nonzero, a book that unambiguously says that we, humankind, have advanced since the early days when we were little more than clever apes who’d figured out how to talk. We’ve made progress. No less a figure that Bill Clinton has praised the book (YouTube video clip) – yeah, I know, he’s not a scholar, but he’s smart, which  counts for A LOT at his level of smart.

Now, you may have thought, “But isn’t progress obvious?” The answer: not quite. The terrible wars of the 20th Century have, for some, taken the shine off any notion of progress. And then there’s the ethnocentric and racist underpinnings of 19th century notions of progress, in which the lifeways of upper-class Europe are the pinnacle toward which humankind has been evolving lo these many centuries. Is this so-obvious progress real, or just cultural narcissism?

Nonzero argues that the progress is real and has occurred because ever more sophisticated forms of social organization have increased the “density” (not Wright’s word) of cooperative relationships among people, and thus allowed more people to live better lives. I believe Wright is correct and that human progress has been real. Since the late 1970s I have worked with the late David Hays to articulate a model of cultural evolution that explicates the psycho-cultural terms of that progress. Our audience, however, has been largely academic and, thus, largely deaf to our work. They don’t want to hear it. Wright has put an argument before the larger intellectual culture, and it is for that that I thank him.

But, if progress is still anathema in the academy, the notion of cultural evolution itself is not. Inspired by the neo-Darwinian revival, a number of thinkers have been writing about cultural selection, memes, gene-culture coevolution, and such things (see Tim Lewens’ article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an overview.) And these thinkers have avoided any intimation of progress, any notion that culture is evolving in some direction.

I understand the caution, but I don’t sympathize with it. These thinkers are wrong to be so cautious; they’re missing the big picture. Direction doesn’t imply a director, nor does it imply some ultimate telos or goal (though Wright is confused on this point). It only implies that there’s no more room at the bottom (I forget who coined that phrase), that culture becomes more complex and sophisticated through bootstrapping. With its infinite capacities and cleverness the human mind can always invent something new by reconfiguring the old and the already-existing. When you’ve done that, you can move up and over.

But . . . enough of that. The story is a rich and complicated one, more than I can cram into a single post. All I want to do now is put the issue on the table, that human culture is evolutionary, and that it has, over the long haul, progressed. Further progress is not, however, inevitable. That’s why it is so important that we gain a deeper understanding of what has already happened. This will be one of my central concerns at New Savanna.

* * * * *

David Hays and I have written extensively on cultural evolution. One of Dave’s former students, Paul Kelly, hosts a website where you can read many of our papers (some of those papers are available in downloadable versions here). You can start with this brief introduction, “Mind-Culture Coevolution,” then move on to our central paper, “The Evolution of Cognition” (read online or download the PDF). For a brief statement of directedness, read “A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity” (read online or download the PDF). If you’re interested in politics and government, I recommend “Politics, Cognition, and Personality,” which is the fifth chapter in Hays’ The Evolution of Technology through Four Cognitive Ranks (which is available only online, though you can print the files to PDFs). If you want to immerse yourself in the literature on cultural complexity (which is where Wright got started in Nonzero), read Hays’ review and synthesis of the relevant anthropological, archaeological, and historical literature, The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World.

Finally, I’m gearing up for an online discussion on cultural evolution and so I’ll be workshopping some ideas both here and at The Valve. The discussion is being hosted by the National Humanities Center and will start on July 5, 2010, in the Forum at On the Human.

Addendum, October 7, 2018: You can now download that paper, Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities. Here are some accompanying background notes, The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center (Version 2).


  1. How does a culture evolve through interpersonal relationship in the context of a political meme that always decries as evil the 'ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor'? What could be more tribal than a flattened society in which the fundamental measure of virtue is the extent to which the comfortable are afflicted?

    In a free society of individuals, the point is to mix those from extremistan with those in mediocristan, not to destroy extremistan.

  2. Certainly more than I can take on in a comment. And more that I'm prepared to deal with at any length. But take a look at a recent Valve post, "Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature, Or: Was Marx Right?," and read what I say about Christopher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest. He argues that biological human nature has both a hierarchical and an egalitarian component. I find that an attractive hypothesis, and I hazard the guess that we DO NOT have any innate behavior mechanism that adjudicates between these two. Rather, it's up to society to create cultural norms for balancing between the two. Different societies do it in different ways, and there is no PERFECT way to get it done. And so we're stuck with this conflict and we just have to do the best we can.