Cultural Evolution and a Rubber Band

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

I disagree with two points in this article on biological, cultural, and technological evolution: (1) it suggests that biological, cultural and technological evolution are separate processes, while I see them as deeply connected; (2) it suggests cultural evolution/history must be read as the emergence of different 'stages', leading to ever greater complexity, while I see the evolution of culture as a stream of adaptations to whatever is the context at a certain time. I would avoid a revitalisation of the assumption that 'evolution' means 'progress'.

But what I do like about the article is the metaphor of changes in society as a rubber band, pointing to the interconnections between different elements of society and the influence of changes in one element on other elements:

One of the most important concepts to understand about history is how any particular event or development rarely has just one cause or just one result. Typically, if one part of a culture changes, it leads to changes in the other parts of the culture. One can visualize each part of a culture (social structure, political structure, technology, the arts, religion, economy, military institutions, etc.) as being connected to each of the other parts by rubber bands. If one part (e.g., the economy) changes and moves forward, it tries to pull all the other parts along with it. If any, some, or all the other parts do not move, the rubber bands connecting them stretch as the distance between them increases. If the distance and tension become too great, one or more of the rubber bands snaps, signifying some form of breakdown or dramatic change, such as a revolution.

If this metaphor were to be expanded to evolution as a whole, I believe it could enhance our awareness for our ecological embeddedness. I follow Philip Hefner's analysis that, without this awareness, culture and particularly technology, blinds us for our sense of connection with the global ecosystem. This sense of connection is captured in some of our most beautiful religious texts, for example in this psalm, and has been the focus of ongoing theological reflection, as in this comment on the Quran, which shows the importance of our cultural inheritage. No, cultural evolution is not about going to the next 'stage', leaving the past behind. It's about using our past in the present to help build a better future. Returning to the metaphor of the rubber band: what effect would a revitalisation of religious myths about the connection between humanity and nature have on the evolution of our global ecosystem?

 

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