February 3, 2020

Do culture and nature evolve in the same way?

A recent study argues that culture actually evolves very slowly — at almost the same rate as nature. But does cultural evolution work so neatly in our current culture?

The Study

In a recently published study titled The pace of modern culture, a group of British researchers used metrics designed by evolutionary biologists to compare the rates of change in a species of bird, two kinds of moth and a snail to:

  • Popular songs: They reviewed Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1960-2010.
  • Cars: They tracked changes in the traits of cars sold in the States between 1950-2010.
  • Literature: They also looked at American, Irish and English novels published between 1840-1890
  • Clinical articles: articles from the British Medical Journal published between 1960-2008.

Their conclusion? The two evolve at about the same rate, which means according to Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and one of the researchers on the study: “We are surprisingly conservative about our choices, and what we like changes very slowly.”

He also likens cultural artifacts to organisms in that they evolve and survive according to whether conditions are hospitable to change or not: “When we make something new, be it a scientific paper or an artwork, we take that thing and throw it into the world and it either lives or dies,” Leroi says. “Its success depends on whether people want it or not, just like natural selection.”

Despite the results, however, Leroi is not concerned about the speed of evolution so much as demonstrating the potential to use tools from one field (in this case, evolutionary biology) to study and track changes in another such as culture.

The other side

Arizona State University human and cultural evolution professor, Charles Perreault holds a different view. He concluded in 2012 that human culture actually moves 50 percent faster than biological evolution. This applies even when controlling for the phenotypic plasticity (the ability of an organism to change in response to its environment) of species with shorter lifespans. Basically, these sorts of species can “iterate” faster and more often over these shorter intervals, but Perreault argues that our cultures still evolve faster in our longer generation times (measured in spans of 20 years).

In his abstract, he also contrasts the biological “vertical” sharing of genetic information (through reproduction) with the transmission of information in culture:

“While cultural information can be transmitted from parents to offspring, it is also transmitted obliquely, between non-parents from a previous generation, and horizontally, between contemporaries. This transmission mode gives cultural evolution the potential to spread rapidly in a population, much like an epidemic disease.”

The Takeaway

Looking at how culture evolves through this lens certainly draws some interesting parallels that support both arguments: for one, the culture of a given society can be slow to adopt change even if it’s constantly exposed to different stimuli and yet it also has the potential to disproportionately influence another or more societies.

We’ve seen the rise of “strong” and “viral” culture exerting undue influence throughout the world, which would lend some troubling evidence to cultural evolution’s problematic origins that followed shortly after the emergence of Darwinism. Is it really a matter of the loudest, most popular (and most funded) culture that survives?

One thing we’ve discussed at length is the idea and impact of media fragmentation. It’s harder than ever to get people on the same wavelength because there’s literally an infinite number of wavelengths for you to tune into. This makes the consolidated sharing of ideas much more difficult than ever.

While history has shown many unfortunate tendencies of this, the power of technology has the power to both perpetuate this trend and amplify smaller, lesser known cultural products and ideas to exert disproportionate influence (to “reproduce”) elsewhere. If these dynamics could be reduced to a science, should we be trying to hack the formula to get the results we want, or should we willfully “devolve” and let cultural nature run its course?

 

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