The Importance of Cultural Evolution & History

A little while back I wrote about conflicts surrounding accurate historical representations of modern societies. The way we tell and frame our histories is often a justification for modern inequalities and inequities. Casting other peoples as violent savages, as historical invading marauders, or as people given a spot in a land out of pure altruism can excuse historical genocide, dismiss current marginalization, or reframe modern rights disparities. Looking back through history is a threat to many groups and people and consequentially many people would rather continue living with false narratives of the past than truly explore accurate historical realities.
But such historical explorations are crucial for better understanding humanity today. In his book The WEIRDest People in the World author Joseph Henrich asks why reading and literacy took off in some parts of the world and explores how changes like literacy shaped our brains and psychology.  Having a very accurate history of humanity is important for understanding where we are and why our biology and cultures are the way they are. According to Henrich, “this turns a question about neuroscience, and global psychological diversity, into one about cultural evolution and history.”
In general, we undervalue humanities, history, and arts in modern American society. We praise sciences like neuroscience and economics which can unlock better health and prosperity while looking down at cultural studies which may tell us something interesting but considered futile or reveal something that could potentially disrupt our preferred narrative of history. This is the mindset Henrich is pushing back against in the opening prelude of his book.
Accurate understandings of cultural evolution and history are important if we are going to truly understand our psychology. This requires a level of objectivity when looking at our past institutions and cultures, a view that doesn’t advocate for certain peoples to be inherently better than others, but rather examines what took place among and between cultures and how shifts in cultural behaviors, practices, and institutions could have contributed to the world we see around ourselves today. Leaving our biases aside and not needing a narrative to align with the reality we want is hard, but important for us to better understand ourselves and improve our institutions to make our future and culture something we want to live in and be a part of.

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