Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

Cultural evolution represents an entire field of study. It has the potential, like biological evolution, to be a mechanism underlying and connecting many fields of study. This short introduction will pull together a few themes and compelling stories from this large field and present some of its concepts, mechanisms, and evidence—hopefully enough to increase the reader’s suspicion of the claim that cultural evolution is a “myth.”

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The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth

In all species, the play of the young is practice for the essential survival tasks of the adults. Human children play at many things, but the most important is the play of culture. Out of sight of adults, children learn and practice the rhymes, rituals, and institutions of their own culture, distinct from that of adults.

The Western child today is mostly kept inside his own home, associating with other children only in highly structured, adult-supervised settings such as school and sports teams. It was not always so. Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art. With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children’s cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.

Iona and Peter Opie conducted an immense study of the children’s cultures of the British Isles. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) is comparable in richness to Walter Evans-Wenz’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) on the fairy faiths, or to Alan Lomax’ collections of American and European folk music.

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Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries

Sacred Boundaries of Thought

Boundaries are the forms that shape communities and civilizations. Without boundaries, communities cannot come into existence. These social boundaries are even mirrored in our cognition: common thoughts give us access to ordinary, related concepts, including common knowledge, but certain thoughts are relatively fenced off and rarely brought to mind.

Communities of all sizes are bound by their notions of the sacred. A violation of community sacredness – from casting aspersions on the rite of voting to mocking a family tradition – is experienced by community members as a kind of pain. This is one mechanism by which communities and their sacredness are maintained. People hurt each other, if “only” psychologically, when they violate each other’s sacredness.

A Christian who has a lot of social contact with non-Christians must build up a tough shell in order to withstand the (often accidental) violations to his sacredness that others are bound to make. It is much less painful for him to mainly interact with others who share his notions of the sacred. When a Christian and an atheist are good friends, however, each undertakes to feel the sacredness of the other, gaining the ability to be (vicariously) pained by its violation. They can speak easily on all topics without hurting each other, because each has learned to feel the other’s sacredness on his behalf. This is a precondition for intimacy.

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Two Patterns

I describe two patterns here, one from the domain of the social, the other from the domain of the sacred. I discuss them together because they are of the same shape; the shape, or form, that they share is also shared with the human self.

Holy Ground

This is the visual form of the shape: [my drawing, adapting Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977), Pattern 66: Holy Ground (p. 334)]


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Beauty is Fit

[E]very design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context. Good fit is a desired property of this ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context.

There is a wide variety of ensembles which we can talk about like this. The biological ensemble made up of a natural organism and its physical environment is the most familiar: in this case we are used to describing the fit between the two as well-adaptedness. But the same kind of objective aptness is to be found in many other situations. The ensemble consisting of a suit and tie is a familiar case in point; one tie goes well with a certain suit, another goes less well. Again, the ensemble may be a game of chess, where at a certain stage of the game some moves are more appropriate than others because they fit the context of the previous moves more aptly. The ensemble may be a musical composition — musical phrases have to fit their contexts too: think of the perfect rightness when Mozart puts just this phrase at a certain point in a sonata. If the ensemble is a truckdriver plus a traffic sign, the graphic design of the sign must fit the demands made on it by the driver’s eye. An object like a kettle has to fit the context of its use, and the technical context of its production cycle. In the pursuit of urbanism, the ensemble which confronts us is the city and its habits. Here the human background which defines the need for new buildings, and the physical environment provided by the available sites, make a context for the form of the city’s growth. In an extreme case of this kind, we may even speak of a culture itself as an ensemble in which the various fashions and artifacts which develop are slowly fitted to the rest.

Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, pp. 15-16, Citations removed.

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Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms

Crabs Are A Process

The word “crab” brings to mind a snapshot (or perhaps a scuttling mental video) of the surface appearance of an adult crab. Like most nouns, “crab” is a metonym for a complex system of processes that are concealed by the snapshot-in-time and surface appearance connotations of the word. Some processes are internal to crabs, such as respiration, digestion, and the Krebs cycle. Other processes are impossible to localize in the space and time of a crab snapshot. The adult coconut crab (Birgus latro) is evidence of a complex reproductive process, in which crabs mate and drop their eggs into the ocean on a rocky beach at dusk; the eggs exist as plankton, then as small hermit crabs; eventually some re-emerge on islands to grow into adult coconut crabs. They also interact with human processes, such as fishing, cars, and perhaps occasionally the deceased female aviator process.

Boxer crabs carry anemones in their claws and use the toxins in the anemones’ tentacles for defense; the anemones feed on the crabs’ scraps. The boxer crab process is inseparable from the anemone process. Wider processes are relevant to crabs as well, including the weather effects from long-term astronomical processes, ocean currents, asteroids, and evolution itself. Some processes are inseparable; others have limited interaction; some are completely separate, although subtle interdependencies are often hidden.

The physical shape of the adult crab represents the successful interaction of many processes. Carcinization is the process by which diverse non-crablike life forms adopt the shape of a crab – indicating that the crab shape is a kind of attractor, a particularly viable form given all the relevant processes within the system.

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What is intelligence?

Intelligence as Awareness and Response

The most primordial kind of intelligence is awareness of relevant features in the environment, coupled with responses to relevant information. This environmental awareness-response type of intelligence only makes sense in the light of goals (“relevant” to what?) – from a single-celled organism responding to the presence of food by consuming it, to a human noticing that a plant is dry and watering it.

Evolution itself has acquired a great deal of intelligence; DNA is the transmissible record of the information evolution has acquired about the environment, from the perspective of billions of organisms with future existence as a “goal.” Simple organisms are still very viable, but the computational process of evolution has revealed that increasingly complex organisms that extract a great deal of information (and energy) from their surrounding systems are also extremely viable, especially over short time frames. Organisms have evolved increasingly complex neural systems and senses that reach into new domains of relevant information. Humans have created instruments that do the same.

Games vary in the amount of “luck” that is available. A solved game presents no opportunities for randomness, no luck – but even very complex games present different amounts of luck depending on the level of play. One measure of luck available in a game is the distance from the best player to the ideal player; as chess becomes computationally solved, its skill component overtakes its luck component. Games, like awareness-response intelligence, only make sense in the context of goals. Awareness-response intelligence extracts as much information as it can about the world relevant to its goals so that “luck” is as small a factor as possible. Sources of apparent randomness must either be controlled, studied until predictable, or, if these are not possible, responded to with optimal probabilistic strategies.

The “intelligence” apparently contained in complex economies (the “invisible hand” of the market, ecosystems) is of the awareness-response type.

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