5 Cultural Evolution

Rapid social and technical changes of the past few decades have inspired a variety of attempts to map the trajectory of long-term cultural evolution. These models favor developmental stages. For example, Jean Gebser outlined five such stages: archaic, magic, mythical, mental, integral. Inspired partly by Gebser, Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory also feature stages (called “altitudes”): archaic, indigenous, tribal, traditional, modern, post modern, integral. Metamodernism (Freinacht, 2017) likewise posits stages: archaic, animism, faustian, postfaustian, modern, postmodern, metamodern. Our concern here is not to advocate for who has the best number of stages or the best names for stages. There are obvious parallels between the models and students of long-term history and archeology will be familiar with underlying empirical details. Rather, our focus here is to explore plausible mechanisms that might give rise to coherent cultural stages in the first place. Why are such patterns recognizable? Why does one give way to another? Why does the sequence seem to have a trajectory? The goal here is practical. We want bring metamodel thinking as close to earth as possible and to find out to what extent metamodel thinking might positively impact our cultures and civilization going forward.

First of all, we need to explore the notion of culture. For example, in one case study, a study of culture in higher education, an attempt was made to explicate culture through its many elements: rite, ceremonial, ritual, myth, saga, legend, story, folktale, symbol, language, gesture, physical setting, artifact. (Kuh & Whitt, 1988) Writing for an academic audience, the same authors also acknowledged the contributions of as many disciplines as possible with respect to the study of culture. Anthropology, functionalism, structural-functionalism, historical diffusionism, cultural materialism, idealism, cognitive studies, ethnography, structuralism, and semiotics among others all got explicit mention. There were more, so whatever we say here will surely leave a lot out and disappoint someone. The atmosphere becomes rarefied when attempting an all-encompassing view; any such generalized perspective must elide many details. We invite the reader to settle into whatever operational definition of culture seems most congenial. Our hope here is to speak constructively to the greatest number of such definitions, or at least to the most common interpretations of the term culture.

Culture itself being whatever it is, one point of leverage on the idea of stages of cultural evolution comes from the evident echos or parallels between cultural evolution and human personal development. As a rough generalization, it seems like human infants recapitulate all previous cultural stages, reaching at most the level or stage their parents, village, tribe, nation, etc. currently embodies. Rare exceptional geniuses break through and show us the next stage higher from time to time (Freinacht, 2017), but the educational process for most people is to start archaic and then grow up to whatever stage their teachers, parents, and elders are able to model for them. So other than random acts of genius, why has the ladder of levels gotten higher over the millenia? One hypothesis would be that knowledge (a form of cultural capital) expands through the outcomes it stimulates. Cultural artifacts like products, production methods, techniques, data, maps, understandings, models, and so forth accumulate over time and drift from culture-to-culture and civilization-to-civilization. Some of these improvements create positive feedback loops into material resources like food, clothing, shelter, medicine, tools, weapons, and so on. Employing a generally Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) framework, it seems plausible to imagine a feedback loop between agents, their artifacts, their strategies, and their outcomes. (Axelrod, & Cohen, 1999) For example, when rice cultivation caught on in China, calories per person rose. Population grew. Rice acreage expanded. Rice farming was absorbed into Chinese culture. (Braudel, 1995) Improved techniques thus passed on to future generations.

In this manner, at least a rough idea of the leveling up mechanism for cultural stages can be gained by envisioning the day-to-day requirements of functioning at each cultural level. The transition to neolithic agriculture required new tools, a settled lifestyle, and a new awareness of seasons and cycles. Urbanization and civilization added a nuanced division of labor and relying on strangers for subsistence. These material and structural changes required new cultural metamodels to make sense of the civilizing world. (Maxwell, 2021) The mythic was born. For quite a few centuries, a mythic framework made enough sense to support common lifeways. However, when science emerged, and tools and trade requiring rational calculations proved more fruitful than traditional methods, rational actors did better and eventually set the tone for a new type of culture. In short, the modern sensibility emerged from industrial and capitalistic outperformance. Why now then postmodernism? Knowledge work requires different tools and understandings. Global trade encounters diversity in any line of business, throughout its distribution and supply chains. The previous success of industry achieved by exploiting or polluting the environment more recently gives way to the realization that the air now chokes and water now burns. In general, people interact with the world they are in and form ideas accordingly. The postmodern cultural world forms its critical, environmental, and diversity-positive opinions in relation to the previous productions and excesses of the modernizing industrial age, which in turn revised and extended what came before. Cultural stages are thus metamodels for orchestrating ideas that make sense to the people existing in and occupying a particular version of our world. As the material world transforms, so do the metamodels.

None of this gainsays spirit, freedom, self-realization, consciousness, or any of the other dimensions of Integral Theory’s Upper Left quadrant. We are only claiming feedback between self and world. In CAS terms, people are agents. Agents have strategies. Why agents pick one strategy over some other strategy is not for CAS to know. If spiritually realized agents invent some new strategy, the world will watch what happens next and maybe behaviors will change in imitation. Worked for Ghandi, right? The various cultural evolutionary stages projected by current metamodels to come after postmodernism essentially depend on this sort of spiritually developed self engaging with the world. Not claiming any special spiritual insight and staying consistent with the generally grounded view adduced in the passages above, consider – what exactly is the “means of production” in the high-tech, globally connected, research driven, innovation-hungry world of current late- or even later-capitalism? Human brain power, basically. It turns out you cannot program AI without first programming AI developers. Before turning robots loose on the world, it is helpful map or model the world these creations are built to serve. We cannot architect solutions for anything that matters today without a very wide-angled view. A planetary view, we might dare say. To fit that global view into the same sorts of crania that hunted mastodons with spears, human software needs to bump up to the next version. Current metamodels need to survey all previous cultures; pick the best features; interact with potential allies, adversaries, customers, and employees at all developmental levels; maintain current production outputs to sustain population; while preserving and cleaning up the environment; without starting any major wars. Also, the people who do all this can’t afford to stay in college for decades while racking up student loans the whole time. So complexity demands a new simplicity. The emerging metamodels must provide the necessary myths, folktales, symbols, rituals, and organizing gestures so the next generation can grow into viable understandings while they are still young enough to make constructive contributions. Our goal here in discussing all this is to begin transforming the large scale narrative of cultural evolution, and some of the metamodels trying to frame this process, into something like a new common sense for the 21st century.


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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