Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

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.
The Rights Revolution & a Code of Etiquette

The Rights Revolution & a Code of Etiquette

“The prohibition of dodgeball represents the overshooting of yet another successful campaign against violence, the century-long movement to prevent the abuse and neglect of children,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues that the Rights Revolution, endowing people with unalienable human rights that need to be defended by the state, is part of a progressive civilizing campaign stretching back hundreds of years in human history. This civilizing process includes taboos against behaviors such as knifing a dinner guest who says something mean, urinating in public, beating up strangers, and as Pinker notes, dodgeball. Humanity has slowly been civilizing and that has brought about more peaceful behaviors which we can see in how we think about violent (but not necessarily super dangerous) children’s games and sports.
Pinker continues, “it reminds us [the dodgeball prohibition] of how a civilizing offensive can leave a culture with a legacy of puzzling customs, peccadilloes, and taboos. The code of etiquette bequeathed by this and the other Rights Revolutions is pervasive enough to have acquired a name. We call it political correctness.”
I find the way that Pinker places political correctness within a frame of a civilizing process to be interesting and helpful. People often complain that political correctness means they can’t say what they think and what they believe to be true. (Personally, my sense is that people dislike political correctness because they can no longer say mean things about minority populations with cultural traditions they find strange, people with disabilities, or people who are not cisgender). As Pinker notes, this is part of a civilizing process revolving around human rights. Civilization continues to recognize more people who have been marginalized and to affirm their rights, which may include prohibitions against minor discriminatory actions, like name calling or refusing to bake someone a cake.
Political correctness is a code of etiquette that helps us be more civilized toward each other. We can argue about where it overshoots (as Pinker does with dodgeball – an activity I don’t have a problem being prohibited in schools) but we should all be able to recognize that it is a response to a continually evolving cultural civilization process. Political correctness is not some form of mind control or some form of deliberate feminization of society. It is a continued movement and ever developing code of etiquette which guides us to be more respectful of human rights and less tolerance of belligerence and violence in human society.
Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Society

New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Societies

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there has been an evolution to the types of gods that humans have believed in throughout history. His argument is that humans at one point were more likely to believe that animals, plants, and other inanimate features of the environment had spirits and supernatural abilities, that those beliefs were eventually dropped in favor of gods responsible for certain outcomes, and that in the end those gods became consolidated within a single omnipotent deity. This transition could be attributed to simple chance, but Harari argues that a causal pathway exists from animal and plant spirits to an omnipotent deity.
For the first step in the process, Harari argues that human agriculture and a transition to an agricultural society was the primary causal driver. Harari writes, “gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god, and the god of medicine took center stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the god’s main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.”
A pre-agrarian society, Harari argues, didn’t need to control plants or animals. An agrarian society, however, did. Farmers ordered plants in the ground, made efforts to control their water supply, competition, and the nutrient level of their soil. Herders had to control and direct their flocks, we’re responsible for the continued reproduction and health of animals in their herds, and had to ward off predators. In new agrarian societies, men became responsible for plants and animals, and it became necessary to appeal to higher powers to influence successful crop yields and herd survival when many things remained beyond the control and influence of early agrarian humans. Spirits within animals and plants were not helpful, gods who could influence plants and animals were very helpful.
According to Harari the transition to gods for specific needs or to influence aspects of the environment occurred in many places in corresponded with agrarian living. The gods were a result of the efforts and subsequent needs of humans. There was an evolutionary procession based on the needs of humans that shaped how gods manifested in belief systems.