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Is Cultural Change a Darwinian Process? No.

Is Cultural Change a Darwinian Process? No.

There is no need to shoehorn the complex process of cultural change into pre-existing biological theories, especially as Darwinism doesn't explain why we change styles in our own lifetimes

Over the last 45 years, hip-hop has preserved its core conventions — rapping instead of melody lines, an emphasis on rhythm over harmony — but there have been notable changes in production. In the 1980s Run DMC rapped over raw drum machine beats, while early 1990s hip-hop sampled forgotten hooks and wayward song fragments. In the 21st century, Atlanta trap revived the 808 drum machine and ran vocals through AutoTune for robotic effects. Not unlike the change from dinosaurs to birds, the sound of hip-hop has seemingly evolved over time — which explains why the Netflix series about the genre’s history is called Hip-Hop Evolution.

The reasons for cultural change like this can seem very obscure, and there have been many attempts to summarize and explain the shifts in communal behavior over time. Writers constantly introduce new metaphors for the process: culture spreads like a virus, culture trickles-down like a waterfall. By this measure, “evolution” is another useful metaphor: Cultural practices drift from one form to another through small modifications over time.

Scientists, however, aren’t interested in proposing metaphors: they want to uncover the models that help us predict particular phenomena. In his book Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences, professor Alex Mesoudi sets out to demonstrate that Darwinian evolution is not an analogy but the core mechanism behind “changes in socially transmitted beliefs, knowledge, technology, languages, social institutions.”

The first thing to note is that Mesoudi’s hypothesis relies on the definition of “culture” from biological anthropology: Culture describes humans' learned behaviors, as opposed to instinctual behaviors. More specifically, Mesoudi defines culture as not the actual behavior but information "acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language.”

Establishing this definition, Mesoudi then argues that culture changes over time in a Darwinian process. To wit, (1) there is variation in cultural practices, (2) these variations are in competition with each other, and (3) the most fit practices “survive” to be continued by the next generation. If we apply this to our hip-hop example, Black American artists proposed a variety of musical styles in the 1980s — Go-go and hip-hop — which had to compete for audience attention against other genres, after which only hip-hop survived as a vibrant art form.

I enjoyed Mesoudi’s book, and recommend it for anyone interested in thinking about cultural change. But I remain extremely skeptical that Darwinian mechanics provide any useful insights for better understanding cultural change.

The first issue arises from Mesoudi's broad definition of culture. Our contemporary use of the word "culture" doesn't tend to denote all learned human behavior but the conventional parts of life: customs, styles, norms, art, and material goods. Mesoudi's definition includes them but also what we would call technology — innovations that offer increased practical benefits. But of the two kinds of learned behavior, Darwinian ideas of fit best apply to technology. Cars competed against horse-drawn carriages, and they “won." And these victories are permanent. No one goes back to horse-drawn carriages.

Fitness, however, is a very bad way to explain conventional change. New conventions appear, disappear, and persist without any much regard for "fit." In most cases, conventional solutions to coordination strategies are “good enough," and then are held in place by inertia, status structures, or industrial organizations. In particular, Darwinian evolution does little to explain the fast-moving conventional change we call "trends," where a certain style (e.g. raver pants, cornrows) prospers for a short time without ever being inherited by the next generation. Fads make up a significant portion of contemporary culture, and they just aren't Darwinian in any meaningful way.

We can't get around this problem but saying that only technology is Darwinian because practical behaviors also get tied up in conventions. The diffusion of technologies is never just a battle of superior product fitness (e.g. the lower-quality VHS won out against Betamax), which is why Everett Rogers had to write an entire book, Diffusion of Innovations, to explain how social processes influence the adoption of useful innovations.

But there's an even bigger issue with the idea of Darwinian “cultural evolution,” which is that the entire thing only makes sense through a bit of intellectual slight-of-hand. When Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, he was unaware of Gregor Mendel and the breakthroughs in genetics. The subsequent generation of scientists thus updated Darwin's theories with our understanding of genetic inheritance to create an even stronger model of evolutionary change. These "Neo-Darwinian" theories noted (1) genes are inherited in an all-or-nothing fashion (2) variation appears randomly rather than as a direct attempt at environmental adaptation, and (3) genetic inheritance is non-Lamarckian, so whatever happens to an individual in its lifetime doesn’t affect its offspring. Again, these additions are not rebuttals to Darwin but accurate improvements to the original theory.

Mesoudi admits that none of these Neo-Darwinian principles apply to cultural change. Inventors of culture (1) blend previous cultural practices (2) intentionally propose variation in direct response to environmental needs, and (3) pass on practices that are acquired in their lifetimes. For Mesoudi, cultural change is "only Darwinian" and doesn’t adhere to Neo-Darwin theories — which better describes the mechanism of biological evolution.

The Lamarckian point is the most damning. When learning about the history of science, we make fun of Lamarckian theory for suggesting that rats with their tails cut off have children without tails. But culture is outright Lamarckian. In the early 20th century, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants spoke Yiddish, but their children learned English in the New World and passed on English — not Yiddish — to their own children. Famed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould not only saw cultural change as a Lamarckian process, but noted that this is what enables civilization: “Natural evolution includes no principle of predictable progress or movement to greater complexity. But cultural change is potentially progressive or self-complexifying because Lamarckian inheritance accumulates favorable innovations by direct transmission, and amalgamation of traditions allows any culture to choose and join the most useful inventions of several separate societies.”

Remember: We’re not interested in Darwinian evolution as an analogy, but as an actual model, and there are serious issues with this perspective when there are limited applications to conventional change and not much resemblance to our improved understanding of how evolution works. Darwin tells us nothing about the actual twists and turns that allowed hip-hop to become the most dominant global sound. Rather than broad pronouncements of “fit,” a more useful analysis would try to connect the micro actions of individuals to the macro outcomes: why teenagers in the South Bronx gravitated towards a specific set of new art forms, why the Downtown art scene embraced rap, why rap appealed to middle-class white kids in the suburbs, how breakthroughs in music technology changed the sound over time, why artists pursued specific avenues of innovation, and how market forces shaped the sound.

Cultural change is so complex that we should always welcome importing techniques from other fields to gain better understanding. But there is zero need to shoehorn the entire process of cultural change into an existing theory of biology. Culture exists because individuals follow conventions — not genes — and the inherent differences between these two mechanisms should force us to explain culture on its own terms.

Ultimately cultural change entails a wide range of different phenomena — the slow-drift of customs, short-term fads and fashions, the adaptations of behavior to new technological paradigms, the intentional preservation of impractical rituals and traditions for group cohesion — some of which are vaguely Darwinian but most not. Mesoudi’s book is helpful for collecting techniques from evolutionary biology that help us track and frame specific cultural phenomena (and he has an excellent chapter on animal “culture” I'll tackle in a future installment). But to adopt Darwinism as the total package requires ignoring so much knowledge about culture we already have. Why would we do that?