This series began with an overview of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Then we moved on to discuss the evolutionary roots of human psychology. Most people might expect that such an endeavour would provide insights when dealing with individuals but why introduce culture? The short answer is that in relation to Homo sapiens there is no real difference. Here’s why….
As we know, Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessors in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) existed in small groups, probably of up to a maximum of around 150 individuals. In reality, of course group size would vary greatly but the 150 maximum seems reasonable in the light of research among modern humans.
This ‘village’ or ‘small tribe’ model meant that complicated intrigues and political brinkmanship, although they may have existed, seem likely to have been very different from those of today. In a society where everyone knows everyone else and where altruism and co-operation is rewarded the stereotypical ‘two-faced’ politician could not thrive. So our species evolved to make judgements based upon what we see.
In an earlier post we introduced the concept of evolved heuristics. These are the mental ‘shortcuts’ that allow us to act without spending a lot of time thinking. These heuristics presumably served us well in the EEA when life, although undoubtedly hard was also simpler and so easier to understand.
One such heuristic is the idea that ‘what you see is what you get’.
‘Seeing is believing‘ in other words.
As we shall see this evolved heuristic, although undoubtedly useful and adaptive in the EEA often just gets in the way today. It’s just too convincing.
As Homo sapiens evolved we acquired a big brain and increasingly sophisticated language, and with them the ability to handle more and more abstract thoughts. Language helps us not only to see with our own eyes but also to hear about events and to discuss their meaning. We can interpret what we see.
Before we can begin to relate these psychological adaptations to modern human culture we need to revisit the idea of ‘pattern recognition‘. As culture is based upon consistent values and behaviours these too have evolved in relation to predictable, observable patterns and the interpretations we create to explain them. For example, the predictable midday heat in certain equatorial countries gave rise to the ‘siesta’ culture whereas life in North European boglands gave rise to a culture of water spirits and marsh Gods.
Cognition and memes
These factors combine to create explanations that are communicated throughout the society as memes. These shared memes prompt group norms, customs, values and beliefs. In other words, as the memes accumulate they create cultures.
Over time these memes develop more sophisticated explanations in step with increasing knowledge and understanding throughout the society. That’s the cognition part. It’s interesting that these new explanations often lose the original meaning and yet continue to be used as justification. Such evolved memes, beliefs and norms are known as ‘traditions‘.
However the really interesting thing is that even when these culture-building memes are shown over time to be false they retain their authority. That’s the power of evolved psychology.
Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical examples. I should stress that (in the absence of a time machine) there is no way to know how accurate these speculations might be but they will serve as examples of the process, if not the specific facts in question.
Moon memes – and a cultural overlay
Basic drive -
Early humans needed to make sense of the world and yet they had almost no understanding of the science and knowledge we take for granted today. They had no awareness of germs for example and yet they saw people become ill and die when exposed to disease. They also had no clue about astronomy but they saw the different phases of the moon and realised that whatever was going on was beyond their control.
They developed the mental shortcuts that diseased people should be avoided and that the moon is stronger than humans. They also had the pre-existing heuristic that ‘seeing is believing’.
Imagine life without artificial lighting. How dark would the nights be? How many wild animals might lurk unseen just beyond the campfire’s glow?
Then consider a moonlit night. How many more of these would be predators might you see. Remember that seeing is believing. If you see more predators on moonlit nights there must be more predators. You’ve found a pattern.
A new meme develops. The powerful moon influences earthly events when it’s biggest (remember it’s not actually bigger, just differently lit but it looks bigger and seeing is believing.
Developing explanation Missing the original point
As society develops science and begins to understand gravitational forces a new explanation develops to make sense of the moon’s apparent power. It’s the idea that a bigger moon exerts a stronger gravitational pull affecting humans and causing lunacy. This, of course, has nothing to do with the original issue of wildlife but that’s OK. Ideas evolve.
The ‘increased gravity’ explanation is still popular today even though we all know that the moon is no larger when it’s ‘full’ so can’t exert any gravitational increase. Yet the cultural meme continues (incidentally all astrological memes are equally easy to dismiss) because its original appeal, the need to make sense of the world remains.
This next one probably comes from an even earlier, pre-human stage in our species’ development….
Early primate groups competing for territory
Just like modern chimpanzees our early primate ancestors almost certainly had to compete for territory. Indeed, throughout recorded history humans have fought each other for living space in just the same way.
It seems likely that the drive for group survival and kin loyalty is very ancient indeed.
The mental shortcut supporting this drives are very simple:
‘In group: good – out group: bad’
‘Seeing is believing’.
It wouldn’t take long to realise that those who look or behave differently are usually outsiders (and therefore bad). This gives rise to some unfortunate cultural memes….
People with different skin colours are bad;
People with different customs are bad.
Developing explanation missing the original point
The developed explanation (we might even say excuse) for this group based discrimination is the notion that ‘Johnny foreigner’ (as defined by colour, religion or cultural background) is inferior intellectually and morally. This was the assumption that led to a range of psuedoscientific ‘hierarchies’ over the centuries as well as the travesty of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement.
DNA, anthropological studies, academic and physiological comparisons all disprove this psuedoscientific nonsense but the meme persists because its real basis is pre-human territorial conflict in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation. It’s primal, it’s unthinking and it’s utterly inappropriate for the modern world.
In this post I’ve tried to pull together some of the threads already introduced throughout the series. As always I welcome constructive criticism. I’m writing this series so that I can learn about evolutionary psychology so feel free to put me straight if you know better.
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