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How Evolution Drives Culture and Technology

2012 April 1

“A person should be able to do whatever she wants, as long as she doesn’t hurt anybody else,” is a compelling type of political argument.  It just seems to make intuitive sense.

Or does it?  Ron Paul, a candidate for the US Presidency, espouses just that kind of idea and he has about as much chance as a pet rock of winning.   The fact is, when you start out with a notion like that, you end up with ideas people don’t like.  Why is that?

In the 1970’s, evolutionary psychologists started to figure out why; we survive not as individuals but as communities and that makes all the difference.  Starting from simple principles, they’ve been able to unlock many of the counter-intuitive secrets of how cultures emerge, adapt, spread ideas and produce technology.

From Ants to Altruism

E. O. Wilson’s career began innocently enough.  While biologists were increasingly taking the molecular approach championed by his rival at Harvard, James Watson, Wilson was a throwback – a naturalist specializing in insects.

He did have some early success, notably documenting chemical communication in fire ants that led to our current understanding of pheromones.  However, it was pretty obscure stuff and despite some acclaim for his book, The Insect Societies , he was virtually unknown outside the scientific community.

That is, until he published Sociobiology in 1975, which proposed the idea that genes, at least in part, help determine culture.  Wilson advocated that we try to understand behaviors from an evolutionary perspective.  For instance, how do we account for altruism when it’ seems obvious that people benefit from selfishness?

Wilson pointed out that’s true from an individual’s perspective, but a group of early humans with excessive selfishness in their genome would not fare as well as a group that could hunt in together effectively, nor would it help them collaborate on military strategy. They would, in time, be overrun by rivals who were better coordinated.

Kin Selection and Inclusive Fitness

While Wilson was the first to espouse a complete view, the basic principles were developed somewhat earlier by W. D. Hamilton, which remain central to the study of evolutionary psychology.

The first was kin selection, which suggested that organisms don’t necessarily seek survival for themselves, but for their genes.  Therefore, they will behave in ways that benefit their relatives in proportion to the likelihood that they share genes.  Anyone who studies primitive societies can attest that familial bonds are central to cultural norms and obligations.

The second was the concept of inclusive fitness that leads to group selection, which explains why cultural loyalty extends beyond blood ties to include whole tribes, sports teams, corporations and even to the internal rivalries between departments.

From Genes to Memes

Probably the best exponent of Hailton’s “gene’s eye view” has been  Richard Dawkins; specifically, his concepts of the Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype and the Blind Watchmaker.

The Selfish Gene: Dawkins pointed out that to understand how entities evolve, it’s helpful to think of them as selfish, employing different strategies in order to replicate themselves.  In this version, organisms themselves are mere vehicles for genes, just as iPhones and iPads are vehicles for the iOS operating system.

The Extended Phenotype: Another one of Dawkins’ key concepts is that organisms’ DNA often extends far beyond the body in which it rests.  For instance, beaver dams can affect the ecosystem for several miles.  Technology, of course, also thrives in ecosystems. Shopping malls prosper in suburbs, which need cars, which require gas stations and so on.

The Blind Watchmaker: Dawkins also used the analogy of the “blind watchmaker” to describe how relatively simple processes could lead to structures of enormous complexity. His thought in this area is, of course, mirrored by the similar predictions of chaos theory, especially the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, and is one of the precursors to emergence theory.

Probably Dawkins biggest contribution was his recognition that what works for the evolution of genetic traits, also works for ideas.  He coined the term meme to describe the concept, which became so powerful, it became a popular meme itself.

The Emotional Brain the Culture of Organizations

For most of the 70’s and 80’s, evolutionary psychology was of purely academic interest. More recently though, E. O. Wilson’s idea that “genes hold culture on a leash” has become the basis for a wide range of concepts that have taken hold and become influential in business circles.

For instance, while it used to be assumed that decision making was rational, now it is well known that we rely on primal, emotional mechanisms to make even our most important choices.  This concept has branched off into its own field of behavioral economics and is leading to a new psychology of marketing.

Organizations as well seem to be constrained by genes.  We evolved not to work in corporations, but in groups.  Robin Dunbar calculated the optimal group size for humans to be about 150 and as Malcolm Gladwell reported in The Tipping Point, that does seem to be an organizational hurdle for corporations.  Once you go over that, you need to manage differently.

Enter the Technium

It should be obvious that technology evolves as well.  Selection pressures, mutations, extinction, geographic and cultural fitness all apply.  When an idea spreads widely, we call it viral and use epidemic models to describe it.  Kevin Kelly calls the technological ecosystem the Technium and it is a mix of culture, variation and adaptation.

Susan Blackmore, in the TED video at the end of this post, suggests that we call bits of technology “temes”, in the fashion of genes and memes.  Watch any developer work, re-purposing bits of code here and there, adding new lines only when they must and you know what she means.

Genes, memes and temes don’t just adapt and survive, they co-evolve.  No technology is an island.  Certainly, any entrepreneur who insisted, in Ron Paul fashion, that his technology had the right to be incompatible wouldn’t get very far.  The fates of betamax, the music industry and AOL attest to that fact.

As we enter a new era of the semantic economy, evolutionary pressures will become even more pervasive.  No technology is an island.  Every innovation is an evolutionary experiment which must adapt to the particular ecosystem in which it must survive.

– Greg


4 Responses leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012

    Evolution, Culture, Technology… means Future shock: changes – adaptation – shift of values. To be successful with fast changes society needs new “social machines” – new activities which will be the shock absorber of evolution…


    Greg Reply:

    Interesting idea.

    Thanks Sergei.

    – Greg


  2. Amy permalink
    July 22, 2012

    Apple has made a business of being incompatible.


    Greg Reply:

    Have they? It seems to me that being incompatible almost killed their business. I can’t think of a major compatibility issue they’ve had for ten years. Their computers run Microsoft products, their devices work well with other companies’ hardware and they are very active in the W3C.

    – Greg


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