Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hopes for the new Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution

An interesting development for those of us interested in social evolution: A new Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution has recently been founded. It’s housed at The Evolution Institute, partly as a spin-off of its Social Evolution Forum, and in association with Cliodynamica: A Blog about the Evolution of Civilizations.

Members have been asked to submit proposals for “grand challenges”: “We are looking for the problems worth solving, those of broad scientific and social interest that can drive cutting-edge research and practice within the field of cultural evolutionary studies for future decades.” The four I decided to try proposing are as follows.

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Challenge: To clarify how to improve American grand strategy by improving our understanding of social / cultural evolution.

Background: Grand strategies often rest on judgments about social evolution — who is gaining strength, progressing faster, posing new challenges, etc. Thus, what a strategist thinks (or dismisses) about social evolution can make a decisive difference. Yet, grand strategy and social evolution are rarely paired for discussion. Indeed, strategists often think grandly about strategy, but so selectively and piecemeal about political, economic, military, and other aspects of progress (and regress), at home and abroad, that they don’t regard themselves as thinking about social evolution. Even so, many ideas have connected grand strategy with social evolution via one aspect or another: e.g., containment theory in the 1950s, modernization theory in the 1960s, and democratic enlargement in the 1990s. Also, in the 1990s two ideas that touched on social evolution — the “end of history” and the “clash of civilizations” — influenced strategists. In the 2000s, however, strategic thinking about the “war on terrorism” became presumptuous about imposing a democratic evolution in tribalized strife-torn societies, as in Iraq. Sounder ideas about social / cultural evolution would be handy to have, in order to inform the making of American grand strategy.

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Challenge: To clarify that cognitive / cultural evolution reflects the nature of people's space, time, and action orientations — and to do so in ways useful for scientific and strategic analysis.

Background: Strip away people’s top values and norms and what’s eventually left as the bare essentials of cognition and culture are people’s orientations toward space, time and action (or agency). There are plenty of studies about these orientations separately — how each has evolved in individuals’ lives and in entire cultures, and with what effects and implications regarding various social problems (e.g., delinquency, education, etc.). What I propose is that space-time-action orientations have co-evolved and should be treated as an integrated interactive bundle — a triplex of great significance for cultural evolution at the societal level, and for mindset analysis at the individual level (e.g., for better understanding why some people become violent extremists, and others do not).

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Challenge: To improve recognition and understanding of the tribal form, including how to identify its myriad expressions and measure their significance, throughout cultural evolution (past, present, and future).

Background: Tribes are a cardinal form of social organization that lies behind social / cultural evolution — in my view, the first cardinal form, but also a forever form, since advanced societies still need to generate positive tribe-like bases of various kinds. But tribalism often has dark sides as well. The latter show up particularly in reversions to extreme tribalism that turns violent, brutish, demonic. Understanding the tribal form and its myriad expressions (bright and dark, from preternatural to postmodern, etc.) is a grand challenge that figures in many key policy concerns, in both domestic and foreign policy areas.

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Challenge: To assess whether and how continued social / cultural evolution may result in the emergence of a new sector of society, alongside the established public and private sectors, and what may be the implications for governance and policy.

Background: Analysts have long noticed that the rise of information-age network forms may result in a new sector alongside the established public and private sectors. Most analysts think it will consist largely of non-profit NGOs from civil society (e.g., environmental, rights, etc. NGOs). For Drucker (1993), it will be an autonomous “social sector”; for Salamon (1994), Rifkin (1995), and Florini (2000) a “third sector”; for Drayton (Bornstein, 2004), a “citizen sector”; for Hawken (2007), a global humanitarian movement that has no name yet; for Light (2008), a “social benefit sector”; for Bollier (2008), a “commons sector”; for Mintzberg (2014), a “plural sector”; for Praetorius (2015), a “care sector”. Other terms include “public-interest sector” and “civic sector” (also, “nonprofit sector” and “voluntary sector”). Keane (2008) says “monitory democracy” is the key implication. My evolutionary hypothesis is this: Aging contentions that “government” or “the market” is the solution to particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to new ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.

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This new society appears to have a decidedly Darwinian orientation. Its activities will surely be interesting, but whether they will help further the development and dissemination of TIMN and/or STA:C remains to be seen, though both have Darwinian qualities.

UPDATE — December 17, 2015: Findings from a survey of member’s views about “the grand challenges for cultural evolution” were issued in a report in November by the new SSCE’s leaders (download available here and here). While I’m not sure what to make of the analysis it provides, it shows that the SSCE is gaining traction.

UPDATE — January 17, 2016: For background about the creation off the new society, see Peter Turchin’s write-up here.

UPDATE — April 22, 2016: Also see Joe Brewer's write-up for the SSCE about "Birthing the Field of Cultural Evolution" (here).

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