I have long thought that biological evolution and cultural evolution were distinctly separate phenomenon. I thought that biological evolution changed the actual individual creatures where cultural evolution only changed behaviors and institutions, largely as a downstream consequence of biological evolution. My view was similar, and possibly influenced by, modern computer technology. We don’t really think about the software and programs we run on computers as changing the hardware. But cultural evolution, it turns out, does make biological changes to the individual.
Joseph Henrich demonstrates this at the start of his book The WEIRDest People In the World. By showing how reading changes brain structures Henrich demonstrates how cultural evolution and biological changes in individuals took place simultaneously. Henrich writes, “learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition.”
New technologies enabled reading and reading became a new cultural practice and phenomena. As people began reading more, their brains literally changed. Parts of the brain which had specialized for certain functions throughout human evolution took on new roles and functions. This changed the psychology of many people all at once, changing the culture.
Henrich writes about the ways in which reading becomes automatic and unconscious, showing how cultural evolution, which changes how our brains operate, isn’t always a conscious act. If you see words in English you will automatically read and understand the word, even if you only see the word for the briefest moment. “Although this cognitive ability is culturally constructed, it’s also automatic, unconscious, and irrepressible,” writes Henrich, “this makes it like many other aspects of culture.”
We do not realize how drastic and important culture can be to how our brains function. Our psychology can be shaped by many cultural factors, as a result of changes in brain processes and structures. It is not just biological evolution that can have real changes in humans. Cultural changes can have similar results. This is important for us to think about when we consider how we relate to each other, our ancestors, and to the global species we want to be in the future. I fear more understanding of this type of cultural evolution could be used to discriminate against cultures, but I hope that it is instead used to demonstrate the dangers of oppressing cultures. Instead of a justification of discrimination it can be a bridge and an invitation to help cultures grow and evolve to live on a planet where all humans cooperate and can coordinate for a healthy and sustainable future.