Cultural Evolution


The struggle for survival has resulted in an evolutionary process of natural selection and variation, caused by environmental pressures. It follows that all living matter and its by-products, including human behavior, are similarly evolving.

An organism or species that adapts to its environment will reproduce, thus perpetuating its kind. When a genetic mutation occurs in an individual within a species, and the change is beneficial, the individual has a greater chance of surviving, and thus passing on genes to the next generation. Or when two different kinds of organisms are merged, a new species may arise through the process of symbiosis.

Genes are the carriers of biological information, while memes transmit cultural information. Concepts or ideas that have long-term survivability have been labeled memes by the English biologist Richard Dawkins. Memes are cultural information; ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals, attitudes, and ethics that people exchange and share. Memes are typically replicated through the process of imitation. Memes survive, reproduce, and evolve in accordance with principles that share similarities with those of biological evolution.

Ideas or concepts are adaptable to the needs of a particular society or culture. Certain ideas are useful or fill a particular niche. Other ideas may be resisted, or ignored altogether.

Surviving ideas are passed on from generation to generation through written and spoken language, and through artistic and practical application. Ideas that are ultimately of no value to individuals or societies may not survive. Ideas that were once functional may become obsolete under changing conditions, and disappear completely, may change, or be replaced by a better idea.

In general, concepts and ideas will survive, based on how well they adapt to the changing needs of the culture.

A scientific, religious, philosophical, or ideological concept may progress from one individual to another, or from one source to many individuals, perpetuating itself through the culture. For example, a new medical discovery, such as immunization, may emerge suddenly at a strategic moment in the cultural evolution of the species. Variations in the structure or form of an idea may generate new or more specialized versions. Or an idea may prove to be short lived. If the idea survives, it may quickly spread to different places throughout the world, finally settling into a long period of stability.

Many forms of cultural and social behavior, including music and art, follow these same selective paths. Certain forms of expression are adopted by different societies based on their mythologies and cultural values.

Overall, cultures may resist or deny various rituals or trends as inappropriate for their particular society, while others may embrace them as constructive. Some forms of cultural expression may become more specialized, while others are more diverse. Still others may wither and die. And the same may be true for entire cultures or societies.

Ultimately, concepts and ideas must survive the test of time. Those that are able to withstand the conditions of change within society are the ideas that will ultimately endure.