Read Generalizing Natural Selection first
I would like to start with a few disclaimers.
First, essentially everything in this article is a matter of speculation; I will attempt to offer explanations for certain common cultural phenomena by the influence of cultural selection, but there is nothing inherently concrete behind anything written here.
Second, my goal is to approach each cultural phenomenon as neutrally and objectively as possible, without giving any form of judgment on its morality or correctness.
Lastly, as the word “meme” is now nearly universally used in the sense of Internet memes, I will avoid using it here in order to avoid confusion. Instead, I will use “idea” or similar terms, depending on the context.
With that being said, a dominant cultural idea, as I refer to it here, is an idea (i.e. meme) which, by the characteristics it has that incentivize its own survival and reproduction, has become commonplace within some portion of human society. A dominant cultural idea is analogous to a gene which, through its utility in aiding the organisms containing it to survive and reproduce, has become commonplace within a population of organisms. Despite this similarity, one important distinction must be made; while genes (in humans) can in general only be propagated through biological reproduction, thus incentivizing prominent genes to be useful to a person, ideas don’t have the same constraint; an idea can spread regardless of the introduction of any survival or reproductive benefits to its holder. I believe there are a number of dominant cultural ideas commonly found, or sometimes even universally present, within human society. The first part of this essay will talk about properties of these dominant cultural ideas, the latter part will focus on a few of these specific instances of dominant cultural ideas.
The Interplay Between Genetics and Culture
As I mentioned in Generalizing Natural Selection, culture and genetics exist in two completely different realms, and do not necessarily affect each other. For example, plenty of genes exist which have no effect on human cognition (the space of culture and ideas), and plenty of ideas exist with no effect no survival or reproduction (the space of genetic propagation). The fact that an idea is widespread within a population of humans doesn’t mean it has any positive influence on the survival or reproduction of the individuals within the population; it only means that the existing cognitive and cultural machinery available to the population facilitated the idea’s propagation within the population.
In fact, an idea can spread within a population even while harming each individual’s ability to survive and reproduce in a biological sense, as long as the cognitive environment it finds itself in lends itself well to the idea’s survival and propagation within the population. A good example of this, which Dawkins mentions in The Selfish Gene, is the idea of celibacy; despite completely eliminating the possibility of biological reproduction, the idea of celibacy can spread within a certain population (e.g. of priests) if the population is receptive to it, and especially so if it carries an advantage over other ideas. If a priest’s duties are best fulfilled through the practice of celibacy, and others take on the practice to follow the priest’s example (among other mechanisms of propagation of this idea), then the practice of celibacy will spread throughout the population.
Of course, some ideas do have positive benefits regarding biological survival and reproduction, and eventually become widespread. The observation of sanitary practices (whether with the intention of improving sanitation or not) will improve the chances of survival for individuals, resulting in a positive selection pressure towards individuals who practice superior sanitation. If these individuals spread these practices to their families (among others), we can expect that after several generations, these sanitary practices will become increasingly widespread.
Other ideas have such a negative influence on survival that they tend to disappear almost as quickly as they emerge, as their owners become unable to spread it, whether as a result of death or other means. Suicide, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably a good example of this: individuals who commit suicide are no longer able to (directly) convince others to follow suit. Suicide itself is an idea that can certainly spread throughout a population, perhaps even relatively widely, as some historical examples have shown; yet, just as a virus too deadly for its own good, the idea kills its own hosts, and thus ceases to propagate too far within society.
An interesting consequence of this is the possibility of higher-order interactions between genetics and culture. A gene may experience positive selection pressure even if it itself does not lend any benefit to survival and reproduction, or even if it confers a negative impact, if it sufficiently encourages the adoption of ideas or cultural elements that do benefit its survival and propagation within the population. (Unfortunately, I haven’t thought of any concrete examples of this yet, but the possibility certainly remains.)
Specific Dominant Cultural Ideas
Patriotism seems to be a prime candidate for an example of a dominant cultural idea, in my eyes. I conjecture that patriotism often has a positive influence on the development and survival of societies; those with a patriotic sense of pride in their country will seek to support and contribute to it, leading to improvement in the country over time, further reinforcing patriotic feelings. A country devoid of patriotic citizens will be disadvantaged, in the sense that few will be willing to contribute to its continued survival. Such a country may experience high emigration, if its citizens would prefer living elsewhere, resulting in fewer people investing in the future of the country.
Interestingly, upon being taken to its nationalistic extremes, patriotism can become a very dangerous belief for a society to possess in great numbers. A strongly nationalistic society may think itself superior to others, leading to a variety of potentially serious negative consequences. One is the appetite for war or conquest, often against supposedly “inferior” peoples, which, if done recklessly, can lead to the society’s destruction through militaristic means. Another is the stringent closing of borders and restriction of trade, which can result in reduced technological innovation and exposure, leading to potential economic collapse or, again, risk of defeat through militaristic means by a technologically superior society. I imagine that societies which are too nationalistic may be more susceptible to collapse than those which are not. Perhaps a natural progression to nationalistic collapse involves a patriotic country, successful in part due to its patriotic tendencies, becoming overconfident and overstepping its bounds.
With this viewpoint, we can see that cultural selection can take place not only on the individual level, but even on the scale of entire societies. Societies with certain traits will tend to prosper, while societies with other traits may wither and perish. Over time, the dominant societies in history will have likely shared some sets of traits that tend to yield prosperity.
Religions, regardless of the accuracy of their claims, are belief systems which tend to have certain common characteristics: explanations for philosophical questions (e.g. “What is the purpose of the life?”), descriptions of supernatural phenomena, the imposition of specific cultural customs, etc. They are the result of the aggregation of stories, beliefs, concepts, and cultural practices, among other things. While higher-order and more complex than individual ideas, they too can experience selection pressure. I hypothesize that many of the characteristics present in religions today are the gradual result of the process of cultural selection.
If we think of religions as variable individual entities, competing amongst themselves for adherence among humans, we can imagine that certain traits would likely improve a given religion’s possibility of survival and reproductive success.
One of course is the practice of spreading the religion. Religions that encourage proselytizing will tend to gain more adherents than those that do not, simply because they will have a greater opportunity to spread. A religion that succeeds at converting nonbelievers is, from a selection standpoint, experiencing great reproductive success.
If proselytizing is the religious equivalent of reproduction, then the avoidance of apostasy (i.e. keeping believers believing) is the religious equivalent of survival. Loosely held religious beliefs may be ignored or discarded, but strongly held beliefs, particularly under the threat of punishment, may easily be held for life. The threat of eternal punishment is a powerful incentive when it comes to remaining steadfast in your beliefs. Even stronger is the forbiddance of questioning or doubt; if you cannot even question your beliefs for fear of extreme punishment, you will have a hard time letting them go.
More speculative, perhaps, in the propagation of a religion is the presence of conviction, of zeal, of passion, of fanaticism, among its adherents. Religions with significant passionate groups will tend to proselytize more and renounce their beliefs less. They have historically often waged wars on other religious groups, to varying success. Just as nationalism can be dangerous for a society, though it can sometimes yield empires, so can fanatic religious beliefs lead to a society’s destruction through warfare, or the potential formation of dominant empires. Even if on an individual level, waging war can be a dangerous proposition for a society, it is plausible that among those religious groups willing to wage war, several lucky groups (or even just one) could emerge as dominant entities.
It is worth mentioning that none of these traits is necessary for a religion to be widespread; we can surely find examples of religions without these characteristics. Still, these characteristics are present within some religious strains, which does appeal nicely to intuition.
Something else to note is that, as with all forms of selective processes, a changing environment introduces new forms of selection pressure. As the world modernizes and technology advances, it’s reasonable to think that religions themselves must adapt to ensure their continued survival. For example, given the extreme cultural shifts of the last few centuries, certain religious practices are no longer tenable in today’s world, as people will refuse to adopt them; for example, many strict religious laws run completely counter to the moral climate of contemporary Western society, and relatively few people are willing to go so far as to embrace them. Such strict observance of these laws is thus untenable, and for a religion to survive, such rules must be taken as optional or outdated. Another example is the belief in religious explanations of certain natural phenomena, which have increasingly been displaced by concrete scientific explanations; as people increasingly accept scientific explanations, the dominant belief among adherents of a religion becomes that such explanations are myths or fables, and do not form the core of the belief system.
False Beliefs, False Cures, and False Hopes
Humans are of course far from perfectly rational beings. We are the victims of a vast array of biases and fallacies, and respond very strongly to certain emotionally charged ideas. The result of this is that an idea need not be correct in order for it to spread widely throughout society; it just needs to sufficiently encourage its own spread. People of course tend to accept ideas they could feasibly believe, but plenty of plausible ideas have no connection whatsoever to reality. Yet, such ideas, given that they provoke a strong emotional reaction, can quickly spread faster than the often dry, boring, discouraging, or complicated truth.
A modern example of this is information (and misinformation) through social media. Whether its nature be political (e.g. a false rumor about a politician), social (e.g. celebrity X secretly did bad thing Y), medical (e.g. chemical X cures disease Y), or anything else, false claims, having no need to be anchored in reality, have much more freedom to present themselves in ways that increase their chances of transmission. A classic example of this are negative stories about people or events that go viral, resulting in widespread outrage, only to later be revealed as misleading or false. Much of the time, the correction or clarification winds up reaching far fewer people than the original sensational headline.
Other examples include things like myths, superstitions, old wives’ tales, and urban legends. Humans naturally want explanations and solutions for complicated matters, and ideas that offer those solutions fill that curiosity. Even more satisfying are ideas that give the impression of agency – for example, the ability to predict the weather or cure mysterious diseases. Regardless of the truth or effectiveness of these ideas, they lend themselves well to spreading. The presence of luck (in making some initial correct predictions), confirmation bias, and ease of attributing counterexamples to other causes (i.e. how easy it is to make excuses for failed predictions) further aid the spread of false beliefs.
Of course, the flip side of this is that an outrageous truth can also often spread widely, if allowed. Unhindered by running counter to reality, if it is perceived as plausible and people are open to the idea, its acceptance will likely be swift.
Other Cultural Elements
There are a few other commonly held beliefs and traditions which I think could feasibly be spread in part due to Darwinian processes; among these are loyalty, respect for elders, and the prioritization of the safety of women and children. However, I won’t go into detail about my thoughts on those for now.
A dominant cultural idea isn’t necessarily good; it is just prominent. Often, it is prominent because holding it confers some survival or reproductive advantage to those who hold it, thereby increasing the proportion of the population that adheres to its belief. Sometimes, the opposite is true: despite negatively impacting a person, it incentivizes its own spread, much like viruses often do.
Just as there are biological traits humans exhibit which may reduce our quality of life but are highly prevalent due to their impact on reproductive success, are there ideas which are prevalent in human society which reduce our quality of life while simultaneously having great longevity and being highly amenable to propagation? To what extent are we infected by these virulent strains of thought? Do we have the power to identify and then free ourselves from such ideas? Do we want to?