Cultural Evolution
(with members of the Nature and Inquiry artists group)

Nature and Inquiry is an artists group that has been meeting regularly since the early 1980s to share ideas that intersect science and art. What ties us together is our collective embrace of scientific principles as the foundation of our work. We connect information across diverse disciplines, creating new ways of thinking about ourselves and our environment.

It is not unusual for artists today to incorporate newly developed technologies in their work, producing unique, often unforeseeable art forms. This group does the same with scientific information. But unlike scientists, who often devote entire lifetimes of research to one discipline, artists have the freedom to examine relationships among disciplines, combining information in unforeseen ways and reaching new levels of understanding.

We believe that if art has an historical direction it is its continual expression of natural truths laid so bare and evident they can't help but resonate with the human spirit. That direction forms the core of art's vital history - a fundamental human drive to know ourselves fully and to express what we know.

Nature and Inquiry Website:


Genetic evolution tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and
cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.
                                                                        - Robert Wright, Nonzero

The struggle for survival has resulted in an evolutionary process of natural selection and variation, caused by environmental pressures. It follows that all living matter and its by-products, including human behavior, are similarly evolving.

An organism or species that adapts to its environment will reproduce, thus perpetuating its kind. When a genetic mutation occurs in an individual within a species, and the change is beneficial, the individual has a greater chance of surviving, and thus passing on genes to the next generation.

Genes are the carriers of biological information, while memes transmit cultural information. Concepts or ideas which have long-term survivability have been labeled memes by the English biologist Richard Dawkins. Memes are cultural information; ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals, attitudes, and ethics that people exchange and share. Memes are typically replicated through the process of imitation. Memes survive, reproduce, and evolve in accordance with principles that share similarities with those of biological evolution.
Ideas or concepts are adaptable to the needs of a particular society or culture. Certain ideas are useful or fill a particular niche. Other ideas may be resisted, or ignored altogether.

Surviving ideas are passed on from generation to generation through written and spoken language, and through artistic and practical application. Ideas that are ultimately of no value to individuals or societies may not survive. Ideas that were once functional may become obsolete under changing conditions, and disappear completely, may change, or be replaced by a better idea.

In general, concepts and ideas will survive, based on how well they adapt to the changing needs of the culture.

A scientific, religious, philosophical, or ideological concept may progress from one individual to another, or from one source to many individuals, perpetuating itself through the culture. For example, a new medical discovery, such as immunization, may emerge suddenly at a strategic moment in the cultural evolution of the species. Variations in the structure or form of an idea may generate new or more specialized versions. Or an idea may prove to be short lived. If the idea survives, it may quickly spread to different places throughout the world, finally settling into a long period of stability.

Many forms of cultural and social behavior, including music and art, follow these same selective paths. Certain forms of expression are adopted by different societies based on their mythologies and cultural values.

Overall, cultures may resist or deny various rituals or trends as inappropriate for their particular society, while others may embrace them as constructive. Some forms of cultural expression may become more specialized, while others are more diverse. Still others may wither and die. And the same may be true for entire cultures or societies.

However, the flow of cultural ideas is not always consistent with Darwinism. For example, false or impenetrable ideas are routinely preserved and circulated in libraries around the world. And they may remain unchallenged for centuries.

Some ideas, such as alchemy, remained active before being abandoned. While other ideas such as atonal music were ignored initially, then revived when they were later recognized for their worth. Still other ideas tend to reappear in cycles, such as trends in fashion design or financial investment.

A new species arises through symbiosis, or when a group of organisms splits off from the others, caused by genetic mutation, a sudden change in the environment, or by geographical separation. Until recently, this was the only known way a species could originate. We have all evolved from the same ancestor. Excluding recent developments in genetic engineering, each of the 40 million species in the world today has formed in this way.

New ideas or concepts may follow a similar pattern of merging, or of splitting off from old ideas, caused by significant cultural changes. Although, unlike the origin of a species, new ideas may emerge unpredictably in different places and times, and in different places at the same time. The combining of disparate ideas, concepts and things occurs at every scale in the culture, from horse and carriage, to corporate mergers.

Biology and culture are evolving at the same time, but at different rates. For humans, there is a much higher rate of change in cultural evolution than in biological evolution. In general, genes mutate slowly, while memes move rapidly through the culture.

There are consequences associated with these differences. For example, a well-publicized concern in today’s world is the rapid expansion of technology. It is an historical problem that a high rate of change in technology has often outstripped society’s capacity to manage the effects that technology will have on the culture. This has probably been true from the beginning of humankind.

Throughout history, most individuals died before they could reproduce. Only a comparatively small number of individuals have survived, passing on their genes to the next generation. Similarly, it is probable that most ideas have not found their way into the deep patterns of human culture.

Today, most humans who survive the first few weeks of infancy live long enough to reproduce. And because of the increased capacity in processing and distribution of information, most ideas are available to anybody with access to a library, radio, television, or computer.

During the embryonic development of an organism, genetic material is copied from cell to cell. During this process, an anomaly in copying may occur. This copying ‘error’, or mutation, results in a genetic change in the organism from the previous generation, depending on which gene is affected. Mutations and endosymbiosis are the primary ways in which genetic changes occur in creatures and plants. And they account for the biological diversity and complexity among species, and within a given species.

Similarly, the storing and processing of an idea in the brain, or the transfer of an idea from one person to another, may cause the idea to be modified just enough to enhance or diminish its survivability.

Like genes, ideas related to everyday considerations such as family, work, or recreation tend to be exchanged and circulated within a small population, mixing and combining with other ideas to create conceptual diversity.

Like species, concepts such as those related to politics, art, law, science, and religion evolve on the scale of society and culture. These ideas tend to originate suddenly, stabilize for long periods in which they may become specialized, then split off to form new concepts, or die out altogether.

Ultimately, concepts and ideas must survive the test of time. Those that are able to withstand the conditions of change within the society, are the ideas that will ultimately endure.

Environmental pressures that cause memes to survive and reproduce, or to die out, include: environmental disasters, loss or gain of natural resources, rates of information exchange, knowledge, aesthetics, and technological, economic, social, political, legal, and ethical stresses.

We recognize that memes reproduce, endure, and become extinct according to principles that are often very different from those governing biological evolution. Respectfully heeding the warnings and predictions made by evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and others, we remain intrigued by the many similarities between genes and memes, biology and culture, and take the liberty of highlighting a few here.

We have compiled two lists, one comprising elements of cultural evolution, the other, biological evolution. The list of cultural elements is numbered from 1 to 32, while biological elements may or may not include a number at the end of each element, and are generally not in numeric order. The numbers following the elements in the Biological Evolution list correlate to the numbered elements in the Cultural Evolution list. Even though biological forms evolved prior to human culture, we have chosen to list cultural elements first. Generally, biological elements are grouped on the page according to subject, while cultural elements are organized in the order in which they were considered. The lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but rather a beginning for thought and discussion.

The Nature and Inquiry group:

John Holland, Margot Kelley, Amy Robinson, Nita Sturiale, Ron Wallace (2006)

Cultural Evolution
(1) meme – beliefs, practices, attitudes; ideas, objects, rituals, laws and mores,

(2) cultural fitness – how many generations a meme endures, or how many new
      memes it spawns

(3) cultural adaptation – cultural change brought on by economic or social
      pressure (seasonal change in automobile or fashion design)

(4) cultural selection – people, institutions (society) are doing the selecting,
      creating new memes, and dooming others to extinction (extended families no
      longer living together, extinction of small farms, eventual loss of newspapers
      and books)

(5) reproductive strategies – flooding the market (Walmart, Microsoft,
      Catholicism, magazine subscriptions) market rarity (fine art, gourmet food
      and wine, gold) technology (fast, cheap, good – pick just two!)

(6) cultural drift – random fluctuation of memes within a particular cultural
      environment; slight change in statistical expression of memes over many
      generations (regional accents)

(7) cultural altruism – search for truth or ultimate value vs. self-serving or
      self-promoting motives (ex: power, money, esteem); willingness to sacrifice
      individual beliefs, practices or achievements in search of truth or value
      (science, philosophy, art)

(8) cultural merging – combining of two dissimilar memes (horse and carriage,
      laptop = computer + notebook, corporate mergers; assimilation among
      different social groups)

(9) imitation – mirroring the behavior of others

(10) partnership – fundamental unit of social coherence (unrelated)
(11) family – fundamental unit of social coherence (related through offspring)

(12) social group – network of individuals who share a common attribute, interest,
        or practice (organizations, clubs)

(13) information networks – (internet, email, chain letters, playground activities)

(14) trend – ephemeral pattern of memes (current style)

(15) deception and self-deception

(16) meme complex – (ideology or belief system, laws, charters, rules, policies)

(17) copying – (downloading, reproduction)

(18-19) gender-based networks – (sororities, DAR, quilting group; fraternities,
             Masons, sports clubs)

(20) the next new thing – may follow a similar pattern as a new species, a splitting
        off from old ideas, caused by significant cultural change

(21) the balance of intellect, emotion, behavior

(22) cultural vestiges – (royalty, qwerty keyboard)

(23) cultural mutation – incidental discovery or invention, the error in ‘trial and
        error’ (science experiments, recipes)

(24) social recombination – (interracial, interfaith, intercultural marriage;
        interdisciplinary alliances)

(25) ideas related to everyday considerations, such as family, work, recreation,
        tend to be exchanged and circulated within a small population, mixing with
        other like ideas to create conceptual diversity

(26) concepts related to politics, law, religion, science, art, etc. tend to originate
        suddenly, then stabilize for long periods in which they may become
        specialized, then split-off to form new concepts, or disappear altogether

(27) maladaptive meme – (cults, gangs, ideological extremism, revisionist belief
        systems, dictatorships)
(28) cultural mediation – (television, radio, newspapers, internet)

(29) historical reflection – sharing the past

(30) cultural nostalgia – fondly rediscovered artifacts (neoclassical, neogothic,

(31) revisionism – strategy to simplify complex patterns or ideas (short media

(32) niche filling – specializing in a product, or an area of the market, that targets 
        a particular group or audience
(33) coevolution – the exchange of goods and services

(34) adaptive behavior – selected for fitness

(35) clade – custom associated with a single society (different forms of religious
        belief systems)   

(36) evolution of language, family structure, education, science, technology,
        commerce, law, politics, religion, philosophy, art, sport, entertainment

(37) competition, aggression, self-interest, conflict, war, tyranny

Biological Evolution

gene  (1)
selfish gene  (gene conflict: drive, drag, genomic imprinting, transposable element,
                         chromosome transmutation)  (15)
maladaptive gene  (genetic disease)  (27)

gamete  (sperm, egg)
zygote  (fertilized egg)

survival  (2)
reproduction  (17)
parthenogenesis  (female only reproduction)  (18)
androgenesis  (male only reproduction)  (19)
recombination  (mixing two sets of chromosomes)  (24)
mutation  (23)
variation  (20)
replication  (9)

genome  (16)
organism  (12)
diad  (unit of biosocial coherence)  (10)
colony, community  (12)
species  (20)
clade  (population with a common ancestor)  (35)
planetary ecosystem  (Gaia)  (21)

natural selection  (diversity)  (14)
genetic drift  (random, statistical, fluctuation of offspring within a population
                          over many generations; no selection occurs)  (6)
fitness  (reproductive success)  (2)
inclusive fitness  (reproductive success plus kin selection)
adaptive behavior  (selected for fitness)  (34)
non-adaptive behavior  (selected, but not tied to fitness)  (14)
vestigial characteristics  (don’t contribute to or detract from fitness; ex: appendix,
                                               coccyx, etc.)  (22)
symbiosis  (complexity)  (8)
coevolution  (mutual influence of life forms on one another,
                         or the environment)  (33)
dispersion  (mechanism for selection)  (28)
punctuated equilibrium  (saltation, nonuniform rate and density of selection)  (26)

sex ratio  (statistical 50/50 average over many generations)
dimorphism  (tied to monogamy)
r/k selection  (parental investment)  (5)
kin selection  (cooperation among relatives; also known as inclusive fitness)  (7)
sex versus virulence  (Red Queen hypothesis)
senescence  (programmed cell death; related to sex)
reciprocal altruism  (cooperation among non-relatives; evolutionary
                                       game theory)  (7)
competition, aggression  (37)
parent-offspring conflict  (37)
symmetry  (one basis of sexual selection)