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Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
Do We Understand The Dynamics Of Our Emerging Global Culture?


Humanity is building a global superculture. We know it's dynamic and exciting, but do we understand what we are getting into? Like more local cultures, this global one exists in a parallel world of information only loosely tied to physical substrates or individual minds. It has a life of its own, and we do not fully understand its evolutionary potential. As a result, we probably do not adequately appreciate the possible hazards associated with it. What unanticipated emergent properties might a globalized culture have?

Luckily, there are informative parallels between biological and cultural evolution. Cultural systems—like biological systems—change over time. Heritable units of culture (counterparts of genes in biology) are difficult to define, but we can observe information propagating and mutating e.g. as the packets Dawkins popularized as memes. Unlike genes, ideas or memes can be transmitted worldwide in an instant and potentially reach massive audiences, so the evolution of cultures can hurtle forth at a rate far exceeding our biological evolution. The mutation and differential survival of ideas, however, is analogous to the mutation and differential survival of genetic variants, and thus our understanding of cultural evolution can be informed by biological concepts.

A central lesson from biological evolution is that those genetic variants that propagate best come to numerical domination. Though they often achieve this by benefitting their carriers, some variants are so good at replicating and propagating that they can increase in prevalence even if they harm their carriers. Some ideas spread similarly. The mass propagation of a factually incorrect, divisive, or misleading idea is not uncommon. Is this a disease state, or a beneficial and natural part of the dialog in a free society? One complication in answering this is that one person's dangerous idea may be another's revelation. Is there a recognizable distinction between a harmless or beneficial flow of ideas and a malignant state?

Despite complications in defining cultural disease, it is clear that "selfish" ideas can propagate—we have seen it in our lifetimes. I mean "selfish" here in an evolutionary sense, as something that is good at increasing numerically without conferring any benefit to its host. Sociology and psychology can address why some ideas spread and others don't, but that selfish replicants will at some time proliferate in virtually any evolving system seems inevitable. In every ecosystem there are parasites, in almost every genome there are selfish elements, in every society there are cheats. Thus we should probably consider what detrimental properties might propagate in a global culture, and how their troublesomeness scales with culture size and complexity. Is there, or could there be, a cultural immune system—for example, is the system sufficiently self-policing with the infusion of counterviews from diverse people? We need to know whether something can go seriously or systematically wrong with a global culture, and how to recognize and fix it if it does. I hope we will be able to ensure that its flaws are minor, and that it continues to improve as a generally positive force for humanity.