A theory of cultural evolution

In 2017 my colleague Xaver Wiesmann and I presented our perspective on cultural evolution in a poster on filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years at the inaugural cultural evolution conference in Jena (Germany). Given the fast transmission and amplification of opinions that went hand in hand with the commercialisation of the internet over the last 20 years, we compared the perceived benefits of storytelling with the known dangers and limits of storytelling.


In view of the need to reinvent the foundations of civilisation for life in the Anthropocene (the theme of the CIIC workshop in September 2018), it is worthwhile to dive a bit deeper into current scientific understanding and historical evidence related to the mechanisms that drive human cultural evolution.

Computer based simulations of transmissions of beliefs in social networks confirm that once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed.

To prime the simulation, scientists “sprinkled” in true believers of new beliefs into different types of networks.

These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.

To understand how human societies operate and how culture evolves, it is important to differentiate two fundamentally different categories of beliefs:

  1. Opinions: Beliefs that are adopted via a rapid social transmission process, without any deeper levels of understanding of supporting evidence, related domain expertise, or the origins of the belief. The process of social belief propagation can be described as as influencing or as cultural education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as influencers. People holding opinions are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels with respect to their beliefs or are unable to point to concrete evidence that can be independently verified.
  2. Evidence based facts: Beliefs that are adopted and updated slowly and incrementally, based on first hand experiences and experiments with the physical world and with other living agents. Evidence based facts are generated via creative play or via more or less rigorous application of the scientific method, by examining, (in)validating, and by refining the scientific results produced by others. The process of propagating facts and related evidence and levels of uncertainty is often referred to as scientific education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as scientific educators. A deeper level of understanding of specific domains of interest allows educators to develop scientific theories and predictive models, and also allows them to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels.

When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via the rapid and superficial process of cultural education, the resulting level of understanding is limited to opinions, and thus the recipients remain open to further influencing from those with different opinions.

In contrast, when beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of scientific education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of cultural education,  recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.

Belief systems and their limits

Both opinions and evidence based facts are not propagated in isolation, but as part of conceptual frames and metaphors involving a set of related concepts and beliefs.

Within complex societies the frames that are associated with opinions are aggregated into dogmatic belief systems (sometimes referred to as group identities or isms). Over time individuals adopt a multitude of dogmatic belief systems, some of which may relate to large groups and others of which may relate to small groups of believers.

The frames that are associated with evidence based facts are aggregated into belief systems referred to as scientific paradigms. A single individual may over time become proficient in the use of a variety of paradigms relating to one or more domains of empirical knowledge.

The boundaries between dogmatic belief systems and scientific paradigms are not always clear cut. In particular in the age of “big data”, the reliance on “second hand” and “derived” data is making it increasingly difficult and time consuming to verify scientific theories and associated evidence.

The potential of scientific education lies in its ability to act as an immunisation against dogmatic belief systems that may inflict serious damage on the planetary ecosystem and its ability to sustain larger mammals including humans.

The main danger of traditional forms of scientific education lies in the potential for the creation of narrow silos of knowledge. In this context transdisciplinary meta paradigms such as MODA + MODE can be assist to establish bridges and essential levels of shared understanding between knowledge silos and paradigms.

Learning vs manipulation

Both cultural education and scientific education results in learned beliefs that are of value for collaboration and co-ordination within social groups. However cultural education (and scientific education to a lesser degree, only when contaminated with tampered evidence) can also be used for social manipulation and for the perpetuation of social power gradients within stratified groups and societies, which leads to potentially dangerous levels of cultural inertia and limits the ability of a group or society to learn and adapt to changes in the environment.

The vast majority of online social communication tools have been designed to support and promote the propagation of beliefs via the rapid process of influence rather than via the much slower process of evidence based learning and education.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the role of influence within the dogmatic belief system of financial capitalism that underpins our current society.

Financial capitalism turns human life into a popularity contest where money is the most effective tool for gaining influence and social status in a primate dominance hierarchy. Instead of celebrating the innate human collaborative tendencies, financial capitalism (similar to earlier forms of human “civilisations”) systematically exploits the psychological weaknesses that humans share with other primates, and discards valuable cultural insights from earlier small scale (human scale) hunter gather societies that originally allowed humans to become more successful than other primates.

If collectively we are interested in creating a more equitable society, and in developing cultural practices and tools that improve our ability to adapt and learn to live on a finite planet, together with a rich diversity of other species within a dynamically evolving planetary ecosystem, then we can’t afford to close our eyes and ignore the abuse of influence for the purpose of  perpetuating beliefs and behavioural patterns that are systematically destroying our only life support system in the universe.

Preventing the abuse of influence for personal gain

The challenge: Where in society are we likely to find groups where 10% of the people within the group are committed to

  1. the slow and gradual process of knowledge validation and scientific education
  2. and to the prevention of the abuse of influence?

The following video clip illustrates the dominant role of influence and the negligible role of evidence based understanding in the power dynamics within modern “civilised” societies, even amongst the more honest politicians.

For corporate and government politicians who are drunk on the drug of social power, life is a popularity contest. The need for learning and deeper levels of understanding is minimised, and the lives of others become secondary considerations that rank below the objective of maintaining and strengthening established power structures.

Perhaps we should look to neurodivergent people, who are committed to learning as much as possible from first hand experience, who have above average levels of perseverance, and who are less subject to being influenced by popular opinion. Creative neurodivergent people are essential as catalysts for cultural change.

In particular autistic people tend to:

  1. apply the precautionary principle when assessing risks and making important decisions
  2. have a deeper than average levels of understanding of specific domains of interest, and as a result are able to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels, and are able pass on their first hand domain experience and knowledge to others – they act as experimenters and scientific educators
  3. be committed to updating their knowledge based on new evidence, and are not easily persuaded by popular opinions that are not backed up by evidence / local first-hand experience

Non-neurodivergent people tend to:

  1. ignore the precautionary principle as needed to maintain or increase their popularity
  2. have average levels of scientific understanding of their social and physical environment, and as a result are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels – they act mainly as influencers and amplifiers of opinions and cultural practices
  3. be concerned about their level of popularity, and may swiftly adapt their beliefs to shifts in popular opinions

Judy Singer, an autistic activist who coined the term neurodiversity in 1998, frames the essence into one simple observation:

“I always used to say: There are two types of people in the world. Those who would never let the pursuit of social acceptance get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. And those who would never let the pursuit of Truth get in the way of the pursuit of social acceptance.”

From what anthropologists and archaeologists can deduce from small scale prehistoric “uncivilised” societies, the most important social norms in all such societies apparently were norms that prevented individuals from gaining social power over others.

It is time to depathologise neurodiversity and reintegrate this old wisdom into the fabric of our societies.

Collectively our preferences for either trusting influencers or evidence based learning  constitute a choice between the madness of crowds and the wisdom of crowds.

Successful cultural transformation relies on the existence of easily accessible psychologically safe and neurodiversity friendly environments in time and space (physical and virtual) as crystallisation points for knowledge sharing.

The local social environment around neurodivergent people allows the 10% threshold for the propagation of new insights and deep innovation to be reached mainly via a continuous process of creative exploration and evidence based understanding, and much less so via the easily corruptible process of social influence.

The result is a healthy form of cultural evolution that leaves adequate room for knowledge validation and the precautionary principle, and that offers less opportunities for manipulative social power games.

Releasing the handbrake on learning and collaboration

The easiest path for improving organisational learning involves reducing the influence of hierarchical power structures and bureaucracy by implementing a simple advice process. Before making a major decision that affects others in the organisation:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.
  4. A few simple prosocial design principles provide guidance for dealing with people who regularly ignore relevant advice (or consistently refuse to seek or give advice) and therefore regularly cause downstream problems for others as a result. Such situations are obvious for all involved. A persistent breakdown of collaboration either results in a significant change in behaviour once the downstream problems are recognised, or in the non-cooperative person leaving the organisation.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 December (Auckland) and 15 December (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.

Dates and times


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