Cultural Evolution in the Anthropocene


Humanity is lost at sea in a world of unprecedented change.

Where humanity is going, there are no roadmaps. The terrain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The changes sweeping the Earth right now are literally planetary in scale and so filled with complexity that few among us even have a semblance of knowing what is actually going on. This makes it very difficult to navigate the troubled waters of the 21st Century.

Here are a few examples of things our species has not known in the three million years we’ve existed as “tool using” hominids:

  • Emergence of a Globalized Economic System :: In the last 500 years, a vast web of intercontinental trade arose spanning several empires, evolving into nation-states, and now becoming a truly globalized meshwork of supply chains, trade agreements, human migration patterns, and so forth.
  • Extraction and Consumption of Fossil Fuels :: The last time a species gathered up the waste products of a prior era and consumed them to grow itself we had a mass extinction event. And that was more than two billion years ago! I am referring to the cyanobacteria who excreted oxygen and changed the biochemistry of the Earth. Humans are doing this again by disrupting natural carbon cycles with the combustion of fossil fuels.
  • Explosive Population Growth :: There are now more than 7.4 billion living human beings on Earth. Our population exploded in the last 150 years, well beyond anything in the history of our species. And now we are watching the rapid depletion of vital resources as this huge population gobbles them up — literally as food and metaphorically as the built environments of our globalized civilization.
  • Crossing of Critical Planetary Boundaries :: The Earth has maintained incredible amounts of stability for billions of years through a vastly complex meshwork of self-regulating feedbacks. Thresholds exist (called “planetary boundaries” by the earth scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute) that if crossed will remove this self-regulatory capacity. There is now ample evidence that human activities have pushed us beyond as many as four of these critical operating boundaries for a globalized economic system.
  • A New Pace and Scale of Complexity :: Most of our history was lived out in small tribal communities where each person might know as many as 150 people. Rapid changes, when they happened, were either catastrophic (volcano wipes out village) or disruptive (drought conditions cause the tribe to migrate into a new area). But they never happened at the pace and scale we live with today. As complexity scientists will be quick to tell you, scale matters a great deal! There are qualitative differences in the interdependencies, cascading patterns, and unexpected phase transitions for large, volatile dynamic systems — intuition about smaller systems misleads and confuses more than it helps.
  • Entering A New Geologic Era :: Humans have enjoyed an unusual period of climate stability in which to birth agriculture, build cities, weave trade networks, and grow economic empires. That 11,000 year period is known by geologists as the Holocene. The same geologists now agree that human activities brought the Holocene to an end in the 20th Century. We are now in the “age of humans” dubbed appropriately as the Anthropocene. Our footprints on the Earth will be visible in the very chemical makeup of the planet’s crust hundreds of millions of years from now. This is how unprecedented this time in history really is.

The list could go on from here. My point in creating it is to show that we cannot simply apply the tools and models of past eras to the present situation. Nor can we employ them to forecast our possible futures. Instead we must bring to bear the vast collective knowledge gained across the universities and research centers of the world to build newer, more complex models that make sense of our present and emerging realities. This is what I’ve called the predicament of knowledge as a key challenge for culture design in other writings.

I am going to make a bold claim now—that cultural evolution is THE MOST IMPORTANT body of science for dealing with the global crises arising from this unprecedented time in human history. The study of social behavior, emergent complexity in human systems, how political and economic systems change, the roles of language and technology for shaping human experience, what makes us uniquely human, how landscapes and ecosystems co-evolve across various spans of space and time, and so forth. These are the topics that matter most in the midst of an unprecedented planetary crisis unlike anything our species has seen before.

And yet, almost no one has even heard of cultural evolutionary studies! Even more problematic, many who have heard of it tend to think in out-dated theories from decades (or centuries) ago. They don’t know about the incredible advances that have been made in the last forty years.

My colleagues and I have been carefully going through a birthing process to create the Cultural Evolution Society in the last 18 months. We have already gathered together more than 1800 researchers and cultural change practitioners from around the world. Our first gathering is planned for September of this year at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Seeds have been planted for mobilizing and synthesizing knowledge about cultural change and human systems unlike anything attempted before.

We are rising to the grand challenges of cultural evolution just as our field is needed most. This includes a process to clarify the language used by researchers in dozens of different fields; crafting research agendas around the study of technology evolution, spread of ideas and institutional practices, and social learning in general; merging the study of human and non-human social behavior to deeply understand how we relate to the rest of the natural world; and much more.

My hope is that our efforts will not be too little, too late as a convergence of crises bring our increasingly fragile global system closer to collapse. The levels of inequality have corroded trust in social institutions and brought gridlock to political systems around the world. An ominous threat of war now bubbles up from many places as authoritarian militants take the helm of many nations. A mass extinction event caused by human activities continues to unravel the biosphere of the Earth. And the inability to discern truth from fiction in our decentralized social media environments only increases the social fragmentation that accentuates these undesirable trends.

Humanity needs culture design. We must deeply learn about how cultures evolve and employ this knowledge in holistic, integrative design frameworks for the practical solutions that remain to be envisioned or are in current need of expanded deployment. We must also evolve and change the very structures and social norms of our dominant institutions — for it is the thinking of old that created our problems and that same thinking will not be able to solve them.

How will you be part of the evolution for humans and the Earth? What role or roles will you play in the great transitions now upon us individually and collectively in the 21st Century? Where will you stake your claims in the emergent future that promises to be very different from familiar pasts?

Now is the time to awaken and engage.

Onward, fellow humans!

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