Modern culture happens at buzzing speed. The Beatles, superhero movies, hip hop, Instagram — they all whoosh by as if pushed by speedy, undetectable forces. Culture moves at a much faster pace than our bodies do; or so it would seem.
A new study actually claims the contrary. They move about as fast as our biology, researchers conclude — and may be shaped by evolutionary forces.
A cultural yardstick
Culture is basically a set of ideas. Whether it’s a complete heritage or just some musical trend, it all relies on an implicitly agreed set of ideas. But humans aren’t the only ones that exchange ideas — and I’m not talking about other animals. Genes also exchange ideas, and they can do this at a much faster speed than human culture, but until now, there hasn’t really been a comparison between how human culture and our genes change.
In fact, there hasn’t really been a quantitative analysis of how culture is altered. There’s no yardstick for this, it’s not something that can be readily measured.
The rate of biological evolution has been studied before and is of great interest to many biologists. But when it comes to culture, we didn’t really have a unit of measure.
Even when historians make claims about different rates of cultural evolution — such as the Renaissance being a period of fast evolution, and the Dark Ages being a period of relative stagnation — it’s a qualitative assumption, without a unit of measure.
It’s hard to imagine how such an analysis would go, but thankfully, modern culture offers a major advantage: storage. Digital artifacts (texts, images, music) have already been stored for decades, and they provide evidence of how our culture evolved.
By using data analysis methods on these digital records, researchers can carry out a quantitative study.
Researchers led by Armand Leroi from Imperial College in London looked at four different types of cultural trends: music, novels, clinical literature, and cars. They investigated the evolution of these trends, as well as the forces that drive and shape this evolution.
Essentially, they applied the same metrics that biologists use to study evolutionary speed. Surprisingly, they found that even modern culture is pretty slow to evolve. In fact, it’s comparable with the biological evolution of species such as Darwin’s finches, peppered moths, and tiger moths.
“Applying rate metrics developed by evolutionary biologists, we show that cultural artefacts do not generally evolve faster than animal populations,” researchers write in the study.
About a quarter of all the analyzed cultural traits show mean-reverting dynamics — in other words, they’ve reached a sort of stasis.
Furthermore, cultural evolution and organic evolution slow down over longer intervals. They can exhibit short bursts of impactful change, often due to an external trigger, but over longer periods of time, this evolution is slow and generally predictable.
Culture does not change at random. It changes as if driven by external forces (which is probably the case). Researchers asked themselves in the study:
“Are the ever-changing properties of pop songs, novels, the clinical literature and cars—and all the other human-made things that fill our world—merely a matter of chance, or are they shaped by various forces?”
The answer is seemingly ‘no’. Given the unexpected similarities with biological processes, it appears that culture is shaped in an almost Darwinian way, where random things can show up, but they are quickly selected by environmental pressures — only in this case, the environmental pressure is human preference. When we become a part of a specific culture, when we buy, use, and share artifacts from that culture, we become a driver for its evolution.
However, researchers also note that some cultural aspects certainly change faster than others. Moore’s law, the observation that the number of transistors in integrated circuits doubles about every two years, can be regarded as a cultural observation — and it happens much quicker than biological evolution. For cars, researchers looked at aspects such as horsepower, but ignored aspects such as computation power, which have no doubt grown dramatically in recent years.
This is still an incipient study.
It only looked at some cultural aspects, and the authors acknowledge that the rate of change can vary drastically between different areas. But it makes an intriguing point, and will undoubtedly serve as a basis for future research which will document how our culture evolves around us.
Lastly, there is another interesting finding to this study. Cultural equilibrium doesn’t last forever. Just like in organic populations, they can be subjected to radical innovations and transformations. An example of this is electrical cars: they are shaped by a factor which was not present in car evolution previously (the need to reduce emissions), and the transformation will be radical — we are already starting to see this.
A similar thing might be happening to music. Rock and roll seems to have been around since forever, but after 2010, it seems to be losing a lot of ground. Rock and roll may not be noise pollution, but it also doesn’t have guaranteed immortality. None of our cultures do, really.
The study has been published in Nature Human Behavior.