Evolution and Culture



I was at the Hay Festival this week, and went to a fascinating talk by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

The title of his talk was A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution.

He spoke about the differences between humans and other primates. First of all he debunked many preconceptions that humans are somehow special - many of the characteristics we consider unique to humans are shared by other primates. These include language and culture.

What makes humans different

However, humans have certainly achieved something unique, and he gave the biological basis for this. Early humans were predominately hunters, unlike other primates. In order to hunt effectively, we needed to develop good planning and foresight skills. The ability to look into the future is what allows us to think creatively. We can’t just consider what is directly in front of us - but what may happen. Not least because we were hunters, but we were also fairly weak offensively and defensively (a human probably wouldn’t fare too well in a hand to hand fight with a bear).

The other characteristic which sets humans apart from other primates, and indeed some other animals, is our poor memories. Chimps have superior memories to humans. If asked to remember a string of numbers, a chimp will outperform most humans.

This seeming disadvantage is in fact another contributor to our creativity. We often mis-remember things, which can actually lead to new ideas.

Evolution vs culture

The other part of the puzzle is the distinction between evolution and culture. Evolution has a biological basis, and happens very slowly. Culture, on the other hand, is a product of our creativity, and changes very quickly.

Culture encapsulates most of what humans know - it governs our behaviour, and constitutes most of what we consider as ‘humanity’. We are currently experiencing an accelerating rate of cultural change.

Unfortunately rapid cultural change can have some fairly severe downsides. Historically, all cultures which experienced rapid cultural change ended up extinct sooner rather than later.

The dangers of cultural change

Consider indigenous tribes. Many have remained fundamentally unchanged for thousands of years. The stability of their cultures is a contributing factor to their longevity. They have reached an equilibrium with their surroundings. Dramatic cultural change would unbalance things.

Our savior?

The great irony of the current state of humanity is we can’t stop.

Unlike the indigenous tribes, we are not in equilibrium with our surroundings. We’re in an alarmingly unsustainable situation. If we did stop developing, we’d almost certainly be doomed as a species. We need to achieve sustainability, but through technology.

So we need to keep going with the accelerating rate of cultural change, which historically has caused so many problems. It will be an interesting ride.