I often get pushback when making the argument that research in cultural evolutionary studies can be applied to real-world social problems at community scales.
My vision for applied cultural evolution
What I find fascinating is that the concerns brought forth — that there are unintended consequences, it might be perceived as manipulative or unethical, or simply that we don’t know enough about how to do it — all exemplify an incredible blind spot about how much applied cultural evolution ALREADY EXISTS as mature practices with decade-long track records of success.
In this article, I will simply list a few of them to show that this is really nothing new. What is new is our capacity to integrate established knowledge and proven practices to tackle the full complexity of large-scale social change. That’s something I’ve written about quite a lot in the last few years (a collection of essays can be found here).
Public Health as Cultural Evolution
Trillions of dollars have been spent worldwide to eradicate disease, promote the healthy development of children, make institutions more transparent and accountable, and generally improve the health and wellbeing of people. Fields like prevention science, public health, epidemiology, disaster preparedness, behavioral science, health economics, and cultural geography all contribute to the policies and practices of public health in communities around the world.
In every case, there is knowledge applied to alter the institutional practices, cultural traits, social behaviors, and “selection mechanisms” for public health outcomes. As such the entire field of public health is an applied science devoted to the cultural evolution of community-scale health and wellbeing.
Education as Cultural Evolution
One of the most developed arenas for cultural evolution research is the multi-faceted study of social learning in human and non-human species. Every school on the planet provides pathways for learning about cultural narratives, social norms, ideas, and information that have been deemed valuable for future members of their communities.
All of this is applied cultural evolution. Whether at the scale of pedagogy and classroom management or for national education policies that shape the funding for institutional developments for education systems, the purpose is always to enhance or direct social learning toward agreed upon goals.
Organizational Management as Cultural Evolution
The entire world of business management, organizational development, and institutional improvements is a kind of applied cultural evolution. Best practices arise and become visible through their successes. They are then emulated and spread across their sectors — whether for-profit, non-profit, or governmental.
These practices intersect with the education world through university degree programs, certification workshops, consultations and trainings of all kinds. Social learning interweaves with the facilitation of workflows, directed efforts to motivate behavior and achieve cooperative outcomes. Everything in the business world is shaped by the evolution of social practices and knowledge in one form or another.
Advertising and Marketing as Cultural Evolution
There is now nearly a century of proven success in the incredible power of marketing to alter which behaviors get expressed, how people consume products and services, and which narratives constitute social identities in market-saturated societies. The practices of advertising, sales, marketing, and public relations are all forms of applied cultural evolution.
This is one area where the ethics of any attempt to alter societies at the community scale is most desperately needed. The marketing world is currently plagued by misinformation campaigns, false advertising, and covert efforts to shape brand identities for companies, politicians, and entire nations. Imagine if the rigors of ethical consideration that have become standard practice in public health were to be applied here? Such an intervention would itself be a kind of applied cultural evolution.
Urban Planning as Cultural Evolution
Decisions and investments that remove waste from streets, build transportation systems, establish zoning laws for commercial and residential development, and so forth are all concrete expressions of an evolving cultural system. As such, all urban planners and managers are people who shape the cultural evolution of cities around the world.
It is a profound realization that urban planning is applied cultural evolution. How again might the ethical standards of one field inform another? Urban planners today must grapple with incredibly complex challenges when it comes to scenario planning for the future, ensuring equitable and inclusive development, and guiding the formation of economic (and political) infrastructure on which entire societies change over time.
Public Policy as Cultural Evolution
When tax cuts are introduced to gut social programs or subsidies provided to invest in new technology, the policies become “tools for selection” of cultural traits at various societal scales. Step back and ponder all of the ways that public policy alters the evolution of societies. You will soon be blown away by the implications!
Yes, policymaking is a form of applied cultural evolution. And it is one that must be applied with the full rigors of any other social science as it alters the flow of money, access, and opportunity for the future evolution of communities within its jurisdiction.
Environmental Management as Cultural Evolution
It should be no surprise that the active management of ecosystems is a form of applied cultural evolution. For it is here that human and natural environments are most obviously interconnected and interdependent. The evolution of species in a forest where active lumber extraction takes place will be altered in myriad ways by such cultural practices.
Similarly, the application of permaculture principles to regenerate or heal a landscape must also involve the processes of social learning and cultural trait selection so that the environmental managers engage in practices that support ecological function.
Technology Development as Cultural Evolution
The oldest area of cultural evolutionary studies is the development of tools among our hominid ancestors — spanning several million years as stones were carved to make spear heads and fire was tamed to cook protein-rich foods that enabled our large brains to develop.
What is scarcely known today is that cultural scaffolding processes guide the accumulation of knowledge, tools, and and techniques for the evolution of the most advanced technologies in existence. Or said another way, ALL technology development is applied cultural evolution.
I hope this brief survey reveals that (i) cultural evolution is applied in many domains already that have profoundly shaped the lives of every person in the world; (ii) many of the fields we are familiar with are arenas where applied cultural evolution has already been taking place; and (iii) there are established practices for dealing with ethics, the complexities of unintended consequences, and so on in some of these fields that can be transferred and modified to apply in others.
So I hope you will join me in learning about cultural evolutionary studies so that you can become more effective in whatever change efforts you hope to promote.
Onward, fellow humans.