Population Thinking: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Contributes to Cultural Theory

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories of evolution and natural selection.

But biologist Ernst Mayr asserts that Darwin’s concept of “population thinking” is his most important contribution to biology.

In the book, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, authors Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd delve into why this is the case.

This is what they’ve found.

The Theory of Evolution Evolves Our Thinking

Prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, species were thought to be static and unchanging.

But what Darwin found was that a fluctuating pool of inherited information was passed on across generations over time, and this information was affected by the daily events of the species’ lives, which were also changing.

The persistence of the daily events and the spread of their prevalence would produce inherent properties and traits within a species.

In line with natural selection, those traits that allowed the “survival of the fittest” were passed on to their offspring.

Not only traits, but behaviors that benefited survival – a process Darwin called “the inherited effects of use and disuse.”

In this way, the core of the evolutionary theory is grounded in population thinking, which is the crux of cultural theory.

Cultural Evolution

Culture is an acquired state of behavior, produced via social learning.

Skills, values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, moral systems – these are all acquired and comprise group culture.

And they all evolve via population thinking.

Like the theory of evolution, this theory of cultural evolution delves into why some attitudes and behaviors carry on in a group and others don’t.

As with evolution, the daily lives of people in a society contribute to the process of cultural change.

For instance, a moral value might, at one point in time, appear more appealing in relation to that era’s daily life or current events, thereby spreading and persisting from person to person in a society and generation to generation in a culture.

Similarly, beliefs and behaviors that are more easily imitable and allow survival will spread, while those that might result in group criticism or early death will vanish.

Over time, the persistence of certain beliefs, skills, attitudes, etc., create observable patterns that serve as the genes of culture.

But culture can adapt in a way that genes cannot.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about how population thinking is enmeshed in culture.

The Roots of the Baobab: The Invisible Part of Culture

The upper baobab – the above-ground part of culture – is what cultural books and guides often cover.

Pick up any book on the business culture of any single European nation, and you’ll find greatly detailed lists of behaviors, dress, etc. – you know, the visible parts of culture we talked about last week.

But the baobab’s canopy is only part of the magnificent tree of life. Buried below the African soil, the roots branch out into an enormous structure that you cannot see; one that is even more important to cross-cultural integration.

Invisible to the Naked Eye

Just as the roots of the baobab are hidden extensions of the tree of life, the roots of a culture are often hidden too.

But it’s worth digging up the soil to examine these roots in order to understand why certain cultural behaviors exist and how they developed.

If you’re working in a cross-cultural environment and/or immigrating to a foreign land, it’s pretty clear why this understanding is important. It’s only when you understand a culture’s underlying values that you will be able to accept and adapt enough to integrate into the culture.

baobab

The Swiss

For instance, the Swiss are punctual. This is demonstrated in their behavior. This “always on time” mentality is the above-ground baobab – the visible part of culture.

What are the roots – the invisible part?

The Swiss’ values are. The culture’s concept of time is the invisible part. Time is valued in Switzerland, and that valuation is made manifest in the general behaviors of society.

The American

Another example: Americans are self-promoting. They are not often modest about their success, and some often display it or announce it, so that others know just how successful they are.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.” – Donald Trump, March 2011, in an interview with Good Morning America

Self-promotion is one branch of their above-ground baobab, the visible part of their culture.

And the invisible part?

Individuality is deeply ingrained in American values. It extends in the roots beneath the earth which grow into the branch of self-promotion. Being able to “stand out” in some way – be it with wealth, accomplishment, or success of any kind – is an integral part of American culture.

The Roots Grow

In any cultural baobab, the wispy branches (folkways), the sturdier branches (mores), and the trunk (taboos, laws) all grow from these well-watered roots of a culture’s values.

Values create a culture’s behaviors, norms, and traditions in a way that is not always obvious. But if you look closely enough at a culture, you can better understand how its norms and values are tied. Arriving at this understanding will greatly aid you in cross-cultural integration.