The Power of Culture

Stephen DeAngelis

April 6, 2010

The Victorian Scottish historian and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, once wrote: “Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” In past posts, I’ve noted that culture can either be used as a platform for progress or it becomes an anchor that keeps people mired in the past. According to a recent study, culture has played a more important role in humanity’s evolution than once thought [“Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force,” by Nicholas Wade, New York Times, 1 March 2010]. Wade explains:

“As with any other species, human populations are shaped by the usual forces of natural selection, like famine, disease or climate. A new force is now coming into focus. It is one with a surprising implication — that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution. The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology. The evidence of its activity is the more surprising because culture has long seemed to play just the opposite role. Biologists have seen it as a shield that protects people from the full force of other selective pressures, since clothes and shelter dull the bite of cold and farming helps build surpluses to ride out famine. Because of this buffering action, culture was thought to have blunted the rate of human evolution, or even brought it to a halt, in the distant past. Many biologists are now seeing the role of culture in a quite different light. Although it does shield people from other forces, culture itself seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, ‘leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution,’ Kevin N. Laland and colleagues wrote in the February issue of Nature Reviews Genetics. Dr. Laland is an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.”

Wade points out that the notion that “genes and culture co-evolve” is not new but that it is an idea that is gaining momentum. He continues:

“Two leading proponents, Robert Boyd of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Peter J. Richerson of the University of California, Davis, have argued for years that genes and culture were intertwined in shaping human evolution. … The best evidence available to Dr. Boyd and Dr. Richerson for culture being a selective force was the lactose tolerance found in many northern Europeans. Most people switch off the gene that digests the lactose in milk shortly after they are weaned, but in northern Europeans — the descendants of an ancient cattle-rearing culture that emerged in the region some 6,000 years ago — the gene is kept switched on in adulthood. … Presumably the extra nutrition was of such great advantage that adults able to digest milk left more surviving offspring, and the genetic change swept through the population. This instance of gene-culture interaction turns out to be far from unique. In the last few years, biologists have been able to scan the whole human genome for the signatures of genes undergoing selection. Such a signature is formed when one version of a gene becomes more common than other versions because its owners are leaving more surviving offspring. From the evidence of the scans, up to 10 percent of the genome — some 2,000 genes — shows signs of being under selective pressure.”

Wade notes that gene selection does respond “to conventional pressures” like “geography and climate”; but, in other cases, “genes seem to have been favored because of cultural changes.” He continues:

“These include many genes involved in diet and metabolism and presumably reflect the major shift in diet that occurred in the transition from foraging to agriculture that started about 10,000 years ago. Amylase is an enzyme in the saliva that breaks down starch. People who live in agrarian societies eat more starch and have extra copies of the amylase gene compared with people who live in societies that depend on hunting or fishing. Genetic changes that enable lactose tolerance have been detected not just in Europeans but also in three African pastoral societies. In each of the four cases, a different mutation is involved, but all have the same result — that of preventing the lactose-digesting gene from being switched off after weaning. Many genes for taste and smell show signs of selective pressure, perhaps reflecting the change in foodstuffs as people moved from nomadic to sedentary existence. Another group under pressure is that of genes that affect the growth of bone. These could reflect the declining weight of the human skeleton that seems to have accompanied the switch to settled life, which started some 15,000 years ago. A third group of selected genes affects brain function. The role of these genes is unknown, but they could have changed in response to the social transition as people moved from small hunter-gatherer groups a hundred strong to villages and towns inhabited by several thousand, Dr. Laland said. ‘It’s highly plausible that some of these changes are a response to aggregation, to living in larger communities,’ he said.”

It makes sense that human physiology would evolve in response to changes in availability of particular foods and/or in changes in tastes of a particular group of people. After all, you eat to live. Its more interesting, however, to explore physiological changes that result from living in urban rather than rural settings. Wade notes that a lot more research needs to be completed before acceptable conclusions can be made in this area. Although the statistical evidence is strong, more testing needs to be done. Wade concludes:

“With archaic humans, culture changed very slowly. The style of stone tools called the Oldowan appeared 2.5 million years ago and stayed unchanged for more than a million years. The Acheulean stone tool kit that succeeded it lasted for 1.5 million years. But among behaviorally modern humans, those of the last 50,000 years, the tempo of cultural change has been far brisker. This raises the possibility that human evolution has been accelerating in the recent past under the impact of rapid shifts in culture. Some biologists think this is a possibility, though one that awaits proof. … Mathematical models of gene-culture interaction suggest that this form of natural selection can be particularly rapid. Culture has become a force of natural selection, and if it should prove to be a major one, then human evolution may be accelerating as people adapt to pressures of their own creation.”

The implications of this theory are interesting. For example, what if being technologically challenged affected one’s ability to survive? Will future generations contain more individuals whose genes permit them to work more easily with technology and feel more at ease with rapid change? Jeremy Rifkin, author of the book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, thinks it might [“Towards the empathic civilisation,” Financial Times, 17 March 2010]. He writes:

“What is happening to our world? The human race is in a twilight zone between a dying civilisation on life support and an emerging one trying to find its legs. Old identities are fracturing while new identities are too fragile to grasp. To understand our situation, we need to step back and ask: what constitutes a fundamental change in the nature of civilisation? The great turning points occur when new, more complex energy regimes converge with communications revolutions, fundamentally altering human consciousness in the process. This happened in the late 18th century, when coal and steam power ushered in the industrial age. Print technology was vastly improved and became the medium to organise myriad new activities. It also changed the wiring of the human brain, leading to a great shift from theological to ideological consciousness. Enlightenment philosophers – with some exceptions – peered into the psyche and saw a rational creature obsessed with autonomy and driven by the desire to acquire property and wealth. Today, we are on the verge of another seismic shift. Distributed information and communication technologies are converging with distributed renewable energies, creating the infrastructure for a third industrial revolution.”

Evolution, of course, doesn’t occur in a generation or two. It could take thousands of years for natural selection to make the technologically savvy a dominant group in a future world. Rifkin argues that social revolution will, as in the past, precede physiological evolution. He continues:

“Over the next 40 years, millions of buildings will be overhauled to collect the surrounding renewable energies. These energies will be stored in the form of hydrogen and any surplus electricity will be shared over continental inter-grids managed by internet technologies. People will generate their own energy, just as they now create their own information and, as with information, share it with millions of others. The new communications revolution will, like its predecessor, change the way we think. We are in the early stages of a transformation from ideological consciousness to biosphere consciousness. Scientists and the public are realising that all life is deeply interdependent. … This new understanding goes hand-in-hand with discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuro-cognitive science and child development that reveal that human beings are biologically predisposed to be empathic. Our core nature is shown not to be rational, detached, acquisitive, aggressive and narcissistic, as Enlightenment philosphers claimed, but affectionate, highly social, co-operative and interdependent. Homo sapiens is giving way to homo empathicus.”

The world has only recently become more urban than rural and that trend is continuing. People living in urban environments require different skill sets than those living in rural, agrarian settings. And as Rifkin notes, people in urban areas need to be more cooperative and collaborative in order to survive. He concludes:

“Our new ideas about human nature throw into doubt many of the core assumptions of classical economic theory. Adam Smith argued that human nature inclines individuals to pursue self-interest in the market. Echoing Smith’s contention, Garrett Hardin wrote a celebrated essay more than 40 years ago entitled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. He suggested that co-operation in shared ventures inevitably fails because of the selfish human drives that invariably surface. If this is universally true, how do we explain hundreds of millions of young people sharing creativity and knowledge in collaborative spaces such as Wikipedia and Linux? The millennial generation is celebrating the global commons every day, apparently unmindful of Hardin’s warning. For millennials, the notion of collaborating to advance the collective interest in networks often trumps ‘going it alone’ in markets. This generation increasingly views happiness in terms of ‘quality of life’, forcing a fundamental reappraisal of property rights. We think of property as the right to exclude others from something. But property has also meant the right of access to goods held in common – the right to navigate waterways, enjoy public parks and beaches, and so on. This second definition is particularly important now because quality of life can only be realised collectively – for example, by living in unpolluted environments and safe communities. … The shift from self-interest in national markets to shared interest on the biosphere commons, and the corresponding shift in property from the right to exclude others to the right to be included in global networks, is facilitating a vast extension in empathic consciousness. In the earlier industrial revolution characterised by ideological consciousness and nation-state governance, Americans empathised with Americans, British with British, Chinese with Chinese and so on. What is required now, at the cusp of the third industrial revolution, is an empathic leap beyond national boundaries to biosphere boundaries. We need to empathise as a global family living in a shared biosphere if our species is to survive and flourish.”

Rifkin’s rhetoric rings a bit too idealistic. Although I agree that international challenges require international solutions, I don’t see “an empathic leap beyond national boundaries” any time in the future. In fact, as global challenges increase, likeminded groups of people are circling their wagons rather than opening their doors and breaking down boundaries. On the individual level, however, Rifkin’s observations are closer to the mark. Progressive individuals are using social networks to reach out and do good. In the networked world, researchers are beginning to see natural selection at work. People who share news, be it good or bad, become important sources of influence in the information age [“Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome,” by John Tierney, New York Times, 8 February 2010]. Tierney writes:

“Sociologists have developed elaborate theories of who spreads gossip and news — who tells whom, who matters most in social networks — but they’ve had less success measuring what kind of information travels fastest. Do people prefer to spread good news or bad news? Would we rather scandalize or enlighten? Which stories do social creatures want to share, and why? Now some answers are emerging thanks to a rich new source of data: you, Dear Reader. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have intensively studied the New York Times list of most-e-mailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, analyzing the content of thousands of articles and controlling for factors like the placement in the paper or on the Web home page. The results are surprising — well, to me, anyway. I would have hypothesized that there are two basic strategies for making the most-e-mailed list. One, which I’ve happily employed, is to write anything about sex. The other, which I’m still working on, is to write an article headlined: ‘How Your Pet’s Diet Threatens Your Marriage, and Why It’s Bush’s Fault.’ But it turns out that readers have more exalted tastes, according to the Penn researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman. People preferred e-mailing articles with positive rather than negative themes, and they liked to send long articles on intellectually challenging topics. Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list.”

Tierney notes that “the motivation for mailing these awe-inspiring articles is not as immediately obvious as with other kinds of articles.” He nevertheless proposes some possible reasons:

“Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you. But why send someone an exposition on quantum mechanics? In some cases, it, too, could be a way of showing off, particularly if you accompanied the article with a note like, ‘Perhaps this will amuse, although of course it’s a superficial treatment. Why can’t they use Schrödinger’s full equation?’ But in general, people who share this kind of article seem to have loftier motives than trying to impress their friends. They’re seeking emotional communion, Dr. Berger said. ‘Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion,’ he said. ‘If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.'”

The fact that articles that inspire awe, surprise, and happiness top the list of the most emailed articles supports Rifkin’s argument that we sit on the cusp of a more empathetic civilization. The reason I remain hesitant to swallow that notion, however, is that researchers also found that fear and anxiety were frequently shared. Lots of emails I see are from angry conservatives trying to convince the world that the United Nations is conspiring to form a world government and that the Obama administration is a front for a socialist revolution. When George Bush was president, the emails were from angry liberals who believed that the president (and especially the vice president) were crushing civil liberties and tearing down the Constitution. Spreading fear and anger is alive and well in the political arena. Tierney explains:

“The Penn researchers found evidence of readers’ sharing other emotions, too, like anxiety — which, based on the old ‘fear sells’ theory of journalism, might be expected to be the most influential emotion on readers. But of all the variables studied, Dr. Berger said, awe had the strongest relationship with an article making the most-e-mailed list, and that finding strikes me as a high compliment to the Times audience. In fact, Dear Reader, you could consider this new study to be firm scientific evidence of your own awesomeness. And if you want to share that feeling with anyone, you know what to do next.”

None of us living today are going to be around long enough to see any physiological changes brought about by the information age; but rising generations will live to see how technology impacts society. Groups that can adapt their cultures to take advantage of technologies will undoubtedly prosper while those groups that reject technology and to cling to some idyllic hope that culture will save them from the future will fall behind. Mary Robinson, the former Irish president, once said, “A culture is not an abstract thing. It is a living, evolving process.” Culture is clearly a powerful source of influence; but power can be used for good or ill. We already know how culture can be used to cause divisions, hatred, and horror. Unfortunately, we have a lot yet to learn about how culture can be used to make life better among all peoples of the world.