Cultural Group Selection in Phase Transition

Posted on June 2, 2012 by


I am writing this in Frankfurt, where we have just concluded a week-long meeting on cultural evolution. I was hoping to write about it earlier, but this meeting has been so intense that I literally could not find a couple of hours to put my impressions on paper (or computer screen). The meeting was organized by Strüngmann Forum. There are no talks. Instead some participants write position papers that serve as a basis for discussions (mine was on the evolutionary transition from small-scale to large-scale societies, naturally). During a typical conference there are always talks that are less interesting, and that gives one the opportunity to write something, but not in this one.

Most discussions were within four subgroups, meeting separately, although there also was plenty of opportunity to attend other groups. My group focused on the evolution of small-scale and large-scale societies in humans. We had a developmental psychologist, primatologists, anthropologists, and modelers in the group. A really interesting and novel aspect for me was our focus on psychological predispositions (that are genetically determined), which made the transition from very small-scale societies of our putative ape ancestors to small-scale societies of humans (which are huge by comparison with other mammals, such as chimps or wolves). And then what role these psychological mechanisms played in the transition to large-scale societies. Basically, these predispositions were the building blocks that evolution used in constructing our societies

As an example, humans are primed to recognize norms (socially transmitted rules of behavior) by extracting the relevant information from observations of how other people behave. This ability appears very early in infants, but great apes don’t have it. And, of course, the norms and institutions are at the core of human sociality, both in small-scale and in large-scale societies. But not all of our behavioral predispositions played the same role at different phases of human evolution. For example, inequity aversion was a key enabler of cooperation in small-scale societies. On the other hand, it was a barrier for the transition to large-scale societies that evolution had to overcome. This is a very interesting subject, on which I have already touched earlier, and will need to return to it again.

Group 2 addressed the evolution of technology and science. Technology is a great case study of cultural evolution because it is relatively easy to trace how it develops (usually, in small increments and as a result of much blind variation). Group 3 discussed the evolution of language, our best example of gene-culture coevolution. As our ancestors began using vocalizations for communication, there was a very strong genetic evolution that remodeled our ability to produce sounds very precisely, and also our ability to distinguish speech patterns (for example, humans are extremely good at detecting accents). The evolution pressure was very strong, because those who could not express themselves well (and understand others well) would not get mates, lose out in negotiations, etc. Just think of the fact that in English the word ‘dumb’ is often used as a synonym for ‘stupid.’

Group 4 was devoted to the evolution of religion. This is the one I spent the most time with because I am very fascinated by the question of how religion, especially Axial religions, enabled the rise of really large societies. In fact, I am involved in a collaboration where we plan to add religious variables to our historical database of cultural evolution, which will enable us to test a variety of theories on the interrelations of organized religion and social complexity.

One thing that really struck me at this meeting is how far cultural evolution has progressed in the last decade or so. In particular, there was a great degree of consensus among the participants that cultural group selection is the only general mechanism for explaining how human sociality evolved that really has the logical coherence and empirical support. I already had this experience during our NIMBioS workshop in Knoxville, and there was very little overlap between the NIMBioS group and the Frankfurt group (about 45 people were in attendance here). There is really some kind of sea change occurring right now. It looks like cultural evolution is in phase transition from a marginal new discipline to a field that will establish the next paradigm of how we think about human nature and the nature of human societies.

I’ll have to deal with these fascinating issues in later blogs, because now I have to rush to the airport for my flight to Moscow, where I will probably not have a good e-mail connection. So I will resume blogging after I get back from Europe two weeks from now.

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