Cultural evolution

On the academic battlefield of ideas, not only is there a great deal of debate over the meaning of the term ‘cultural evolution’ there is also considerable disagreement over the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

It is as though no label like ‘culture’ could ever do justice to the complex mass of interactions that bind a population, let alone the complex forces that change those interactions over time.

Everybody has their own ideas about what constitutes a society, and what drives social change, and these ideas are generally reflected by people's diverse political and religious sympathies.

There seems to be very little agreement, even among university professors, as to what the fundamental principles of cultural evolution are, or even what language to use to describe them. There are some academics who even find it offensive to use the words ‘culture’ and ‘evolution’ in the same sentence.

We are not going to speculate here about how innovative ideas are originated, how they disseminate through a population, or how they occasionally spread through contact between separate groups.

Instead, we are going to discuss major themes in the history of ideas about how cultures have evolved from small family tribes living off the land to a global community of consumers connected by the Internet.  


During the dark ages of religious censorship, most people's idea of culture was that anybody who didn't believe the same thing they believed was a barbarian, and most people's idea of progress revolved around the coming to fruition of vague scriptural prophecies.

Following the invention of the printing press, the decline of religious totalitarianism, the rediscovery of science, the political revolutions in Europe and America, and the onset of the Industrial Age, influential writers began to popularize new theories about culture and progress.

The general consensus among educated thinkers at the time was that scientific discovery and philosophical thinking were beginning to usher in a new period of cultural advancement.

Many thinkers believed that there would be social progress as the hereditary class structure was dismantled and all citizens gained equal rights in the eyes of the law. Reformers began struggling to rid the system of entrenched political corruption and bring an end to unjustifiable forms of social discrimination.

By the late 1800s, most intellectuals believed that as scientific explanations gradually replaced religious ones, and as democratic political processes reduced the need for religious morality, the minds of the masses would be slowly liberated from superstitious delusion.

Most Europeans at the time believed that native tribespeople living in newly discovered lands were the unfortunate victims of progress, left behind by history. Their primitive ways of living would need to change if they were to survive. Culture, it seemed, was evolving from a state of savagery to civilization.

This ‘modernist’ perspective continued to dominate intellectual circles until the late 1900s. Many people still embrace it today.  


The problem with the modernist perspective is that it requires faith in a number of philosophically unsound assumptions.

The first of these assumptions is that progress has some kind of universal value. If our cultural evolution from tribalism to techno-globalization cannot be shown to be universally valuable then it is not ‘progress’ but mere ‘change’.

The only way that progress could have universal value is if intelligent life evolved to fulfill some kind of cosmic purpose. Without any higher purpose, the only value that progress could have would be the value we choose to give it.

It could be argued, however, that progress has been of little value to a huge percentage of the world's population, whose land has been colonized, whose resources have been plundered, whose nations have been plunged into unrecoverable debt, and whose people have been condemned to poverty and starvation.

To the postmodernists, the modernist perspective is just one of many possible perspectives and there are no objective standards by which to judge it to be more valid than any other.

For example, the idea of achieving social progress by liberating the oppressed could be seen as merely shifting the balance of power away from one group towards another. Replacing religious superstition with science could be seen as replacing one contrived system of belief with another. And when one aspect of our lives is liberated, another soon seems to become enslaved. Rarely can we say with any conviction that any kind of change is universally good.

One of the pioneers of academic postmodernism was the German born Jewish anthropologist, Franz Boas, who studied American Indian tribes in Canada in the early 1900s. He believed that ...

"The value of anthropology is its power to impress us with the relative value of all forms of culture. For we are only too liable to consider our civilization the ultimate goal of human evolution, thus depriving ourselves of the benefits to be gained from the teaching of others."

When postmodern skepticism is taken to the extreme, not only can all of the established truths be questioned, but also the value of truth itself.  

Faith in destiny

Any good postmodernist would agree that we cannot arbitrarily dismiss the theistic interpretation of cultural evolution, even if we ourselves disagree with it. It has, after all, proven itself to be persistent throughout the ages, and it continues to unite a significant percentage of the world's population, molding them into a potent political force.

In a life with no real certainties or guarantees, where the majority of the population might die tomorrow from a plague or a war, where human laws and political systems come and go, and where material goods have only fleeting value, those who think that life has a purpose have a good reason to weather the storm of unfolding events. For believers, any sacrifice that needs to be made for their family or community can be justified by the existence of a universal goodness. In their minds, the trials and tribulations of history are inevitably leading to the arrival of a promised perfect world.  

Cultural anchors

One of the more complicated aspects of cultural evolution is the effect that cultural anchors have. A cultural anchor is any kind of influence that entrenches itself so deeply that it prevents the culture from evolving.

Religious scriptures like the Bible and Koran act like cultural anchors, giving strength to certain practical community values while at the same time opposing certain tempting kinds of cultural change.

Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of perspective. Maybe in order for society to function, some of our animal instincts need to be tamed, and maybe ‘reason’ alone is not enough to tame the animal instincts of the barely literate masses.

Nevertheless, the problem with ancient religious scriptures like the Bible and Koran is that much of their Iron Age mythical nonsense and moral baggage is totally incompatible with the needs of a techno-globalized society.  


Another theory of cultural evolution that is rapidly gaining popularity is the theory of memetics, which was first described in the 1970s classic “The Selfish Gene” written by the influential advocate of atheism, Richard Dawkins.

The theory of memetics suggests that ideas spread through populations in a similar way to how viruses spread. Once someone is infected with an idea, they generally try to infect others with it. Parents infect their children, and institutions arise that make huge profits from infecting as many minds as they can.

A common criticism of memetics, however, is that the historical development of human ideas cannot be adequately summed up as the mere passing on of mental replicators. Memetics is a drastic oversimplification of an extremely complex phenomenon. Attempting to extend memetics to take into consideration all of the social variables would produce a theory that no longer resembled memetics at all.

The theory of memetics may be useful for describing some phenomena, but at the end of the day, it is really little more than an atheist propaganda tool in the fight against religious dogma. As Richard Dawkins wrote ...

"The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry."  

Western philosophy

Western philosophy has its roots in ancient Greece, and although it was suppressed for nearly a thousand years by Christian intolerance, it was eventually resurrected by Western intellectuals and promoted as a historically credible alternative to religion.

The underlying premise of the Western philosophical tradition is that social change occurs when innovative thinkers formulate new ideas which then gain widespread acceptance. Many important concepts are credited to recognizable philosophical writers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mills, Marx, and Nietzsche.

Reverence for Western philosophy was particularly strong during the 1900s when the strength of communism proved how potent a cultural force one man's ideas could be.

Since the collapse of communism, however, with the failure of political idealism, the onslaught of postmodern relativism, the rise of religious conservatism, and Western philosophy's failure to have any serious impact on the mass Internet culture, it now appears that the Western philosophical tradition is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Having said that, we should never dismiss the primary objective of all great philosophy, which is to try to improve our culture by promoting humanistic principles like the value of human life, the virtue of social progress, and other inspiring ideals that can never be proven to be true using science.  

Technological determinism

By the early 1900s, the industrialization of the Western world had reached a frantic pace, driven by the mass production of consumer goods and the construction of city skyscrapers. Before long, nearly every home was receiving their information from radio broadcasts. The modern mass media was beginning to take control of the common consciousness.

Around this time, some social theorists were trying to popularize the idea that all human beings are more or less the same, regardless of our race, sex, or class. We can all learn new ways of thinking and acting, and our culture generally adapts over time to make the most efficient use of our surroundings.

Technology has an enormous impact on how we interact with our surroundings, and so it could be said that since beginning of the modern age, it has been technological change that has driven cultural change by transforming our homes and workplaces.

From this point of view, you could say that it was improvements in the glass-polishing techniques used to make lenses for eyeglasses which led to the invention of the telescope and allowed Newton's discovery of the laws of bodily motion, sparking off the era of modern science.

In a similar way, you could say that it was cannons rather than cultural superiority that allowed European armies to colonize much of the world. It was the availability of printing presses that enabled the sharing of information that facilitated the political revolutions in Europe and America. And it has been electric motors, petrol engines, and electronic communications that have shaped the industrialized world's behavior and values more than any other force.

From this technological determinist perspective, the ideas of the famous philosophers were only really reflections of the thinking of their times. They did not guide intellectual thought; they merely recorded it.  

Environmental factors

Ancient history is full of examples of how technology shapes the way people live. One example is the development of early farming techniques, which created a surplus of food and allowed populations to grow and settle in permanent villages. Village life required the development of specialized skills like carpentry and metalwork, and this facilitated further invention.

This particular example prompts us to ask a very serious question - why did some groups of people begin to farm the land (the first step on the path towards modernity) while other groups continued to hunt and gather?

Jared Diamond answered this question in his classic book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. He pointed out that the settlement of farming villages only became possible in those parts of the world where some wild grasses had large edible seeds, and where some wild animals were suitable for domestication.

Diamond explained that the evolution of these plants and animals was largely constrained by geography. The Fertile Crescent in the Middle East is a place where three continents collide. The geography there just happened to provide the right combination of evolutionary pressures.

After years of research in the field, Diamond concluded that ...

"History followed different courses for different peoples because of the differences among people's environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves".  


Putting together a comprehensive explanation of cultural evolution is probably impossible to do without breaking a few academic taboos.

Anthropology and sociology have made important contributions over the decades, but because scientific techniques are extremely difficult to apply to the study of human culture, any all-encompassing theory would probably have to be more a work of philosophical speculation than science.

Even if you did develop a theory that was perfectly accurate, very few people would believe it anyway, because their perceptions are filtered by political, philosophical, and religious beliefs that appear to dominate a culture that still has a lot of evolving to do.

For links to websites with information about the development of human culture with respect to the theory of evolution, please visit ...

Evolutionary Philosophy Links - Cultural Evolution
Shattering the Sacred Myths - Modern Materialism

... otherwise ...

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