Applying Cultural Evolution to Enhance Global Human Futures

Variation in Creativity    |    Culture & Reality    |    Impact of Globalization    |    Applying Cultural Evolution    |    Applied Working Groups

How cultural evolutionary insights can be used for positive change was identified as one of the field’s ‘grand challenges’ (Brewer et al. 2017) and the benefit of including stakeholders or end-users in research is being increasingly acknowledged (Toe 2021). As understanding of how ecosystems coevolve with the spread of cultural practices increases, fields where decision-making is modelled (e.g. economics, public health, business and marketing) are beginning to take cultural evolution into account (Creanza et al. 2017). Likewise, an understanding of cultural transmission may be used to enhance the spread of desired behaviours. For example, beneficial health behaviours have been found to spread more readily between similar individuals (Centola 2011), and the spread of cooperative behaviours or educational messages may be enhanced by employing knowledge of social learning strategies (e.g. prestige bias employed in reducing fertility rates: Boyd and Richerson 1985). Moreover, cultural transmission can result in behaviour that counters individual Darwinian fitness (e.g. demographic transition: Ihara & Feldman 2004; suicide: Mesoudi 2009; ineffective medical treatments: Tanaka et al 2009). In principle, understanding of these processes could, for example, aid in the current Ebola and Covid-19 health workers’ ‘war’ against misinformation in the Congo and globally, respectively (e.g. Meisenzahl 2020). Cultural mechanisms and factors have been identified that enhance or impede technological evolution and these are recognized as enabling the potential to both design technology and create social conditions favouring or preventing the spread of beneficial or harmful technologies, respectively (Mesoudi et al. 2013). Many independent fields are engaged in similar endeavours (e.g. Marketing: Heath & Heath 2007; sociology: Rogers 1995; social psychology: Mahmood et al. 2019), yet there are reasons to envisage an explicit cultural evolutionary perspective would be beneficial.


Effective public policy & interventions, especially when working across cultures, can be elucidated by cultural evolutionists’ knowledge of diversity of cultural norms, ideologies, value systems, and situational ethics (Brewer et al. 2017). Accordingly, cultural evolution could inform ‘Behavioural Insights’ ‘or ‘nudge’ theories used by institutions globally in an attempt to improve public policy. Theoretical models suggest that interventions incorporating cultural transmission amongst peers, alongside public policy and economic incentives, may be effective in instigating cultural change (Fogarty & Feldman 2011), though the nature and effectiveness of these transmission processes varies across cultural contexts (see themes “Variation in Creativity and Imagination” and “The Impact of Globalization on Cultures”; Allen et al. 2019). Cultural evolutionists can determine what factors make group-level culture-driven desired behaviours more functional than less desirable individual-level behaviours and apply them to language revitalization efforts (Olko et al. 2016), climate change (Seneviratne et al. 2016), animal conservation (Brakes et al. 2019), global food shortages (Fischer et al. 2014), and spread of beneficial agricultural techniques (Garibaldi et al. 2017). Such understanding may enhance effective responses to global cooperative dilemmas (e.g. Covid-19: Moya et al. 2020; conservation: Waring et al. 2015, 2017; sustainable behaviour: Brooks et al. 2017). Any such applications potentially raise important ethical issues, which require greater awareness.


Evolutionary Medicine is beginning to impact medical thinking (Bentley 2016), yet a coordinated contribution from cultural evolutionists is lacking. Understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of pathogens is enhanced when genetic evidence is coupled with cultural behaviours influencing their prevalence (e.g. Malaria: Durham 1991; Kuru: Lindenbaum 2015; antibiotic resistance: Boni & Feldman 2005). Epidemiological modelers have begun to incorporate cultural transmission of health practices and the ecological dynamics of pathogens into policies regarding drug distribution and tackling epidemics (Rhines 2013). Likewise, international dietary recommendations require greater understanding of human-microbe interactions that cultural evolution offers (Gomez et al. 2019). Cultural evolutionists have the tools to address many pertinent issues, such as the (un)anticipated biological-cultural consequences of gene editing (Nature Genetics 2017) or robotic companions (Langcaster-James & Bentley 2018); the effectiveness of campaigns to promote health behaviours (e.g. vaccination: Jimenez et al. 2018; covid-19: Moya et al. 2020) and Western-centric guidelines of international health agencies (e.g. developmental milestones: Kline et al. 2018).


Education policies for preparing individuals for the increasingly rapidly changing world they will enter (see theme “Variation in Creativity and Imagination” for background) would benefit from the unique insights of cultural evolution. For example, countries have adopted curriculum reforms to enhance creative potential alongside knowledge delivery (Lin 2011) and engaging teaching forms are in development (e.g. CORE). Such recognises that creativity is in increasing demand by employers as other skills or knowledge are being replaced by automation and AI (Durham Commission on Creativity & Education 2019). Likewise, understanding how children acquire information and the developmental cultural influences they experience (e.g. language/metaphor influencing prejudice) is vital in our interdependent world.


Political culture is prone to rapid pendulum shifts and cultural evolution may contribute to predictions of this, playing a role in conflict prevention or counteracting radicalization (see themes “Cultural Influences on Access to Reality” and “The Impact of Globalization on Cultures” for background). For example, many models of collective wisdom focus on a context where ‘truth’ is fixed, yet this does not represent reality. Cultural evolutionists have the tools to model temporally dynamic decision-making environments (including feedback loops between learning and decision-making) to make use of collective intelligence in our world more tractable in the future (Toyokawa et al. 2019).

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