Cultural Evolution, Feedback, Things to Ponder

May 10, 2007

The notion of cultural evolution is one I've been wanting to explore further in this space, particularly after reading Paul Ehrlich's Human Natures (hopefully one day soon I'll manage to write a review of this excellent work). If you're not familiar with the concept, the gist is this: Homo sapiens, as all other life forms, has evolved to its present state through a process of genetic evolution. This process is described by neo-Darwinian evolution theory. Unlike other creatures — or to be more precise, to an extent light-years beyond any other living being — H. sapiens has added a second component of social evolution. In this component, DNA and genes are not the sole drivers of human evolution. These are augmented by culture.

Culture is usually defined as a transmission of knowledge, behaviors, etc. Books and movies are two relatively recent methods for that transmission. Learning by example is the most ancient means, while the development of language has been the most powerful force in accelerating the speed of transmission. Likewise, biological evolution is a transmission of DNA that encodes traits and behaviors. And just as DNA changes from time to time, so too does culture.


The science and math of complexity was initially recognized in the 19th century through the development of stochastics and thermodynamics. But it has only been in the last several decades that it has really taken off, finding a home in all endeavors of knowledge. Though the message hasn't necessarily gotten out to everyone yet, what we've come to realize is that phenomena cannot always be explained by tracing the actions of individual components of the phenomena. Rather, a confluence of actions will often play off each other to produce what would otherwise have been an unexpected result. This is called feedback, and we've discovered that it not only applies to weather patterns (cf "butterfly effect") and other physical phenomena, but also to human interactions.

I know the New York Times "Times Select" fee-for-content program isn't for everyone, but if you have it and find this interesting, I highly recommend the new blog Our Lives as Atoms. In it physicist Mark Buchanan explores complexity, particularly in society. In other words, he looks at those feedback loops that influence both our cultural evolution and specific events in our history. By better understanding these feedback loops, we can better predict future behavior — for instance, by understanding the feedback loops of interethnic prejudice, we might be able to "see genocide coming" before it hits full force. That's a topic he explored in today's entry.

Things to ponder:

  1. It seems like there is still resistance to the idea of cultural evolution. Why is that?
  2. Why did we ever think that feedback effects physical systems and not human systems? In other words, why did we think that human systems weren't physical systems? (hint: Plato, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes)
  3. Prediction of human behavior has always been near impossible. Does an understanding of cultural evolution, including the feedback loops that help drive it, get us closer to being able to construct future events? That is, when we evaluate patterns and look at likely scenarios, with what accuracy will we be able to predict which scenario will play out? Perhaps we need a Schrödinger equation for human behavior. But then again, maybe that gets us too close to Minority Report.

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