Modern culture actually isn’t evolving that quickly


Study suggests it's basically on pace with biological evolution.


Hit songs come and go, but there are some breaks on our cultural growth.

Alessandro Biascioli / EyeEm, via Getty Images

By Natalie Parletta

We’re surrounded by an avalanche of new arts, technologies and scientific discoveries, so it’s easy for us humans to assume modern culture is evolving and adapting at quite a pace.

Not really so, suggests a new study led by Ben Lambert, from Imperial College London, and published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. We’re not changing any more quickly than other organisms.

That’s because most culture is subject to “directional and stabilising forces”, the authors say, the latter being more influential – even creating stasis in some cases.

“In short, the reason why a large part of modern culture shows so little long-term change,” they write, “is because of the action of some constraining force.”

To come to this conclusion, they compared the evolution of animal populations with what they called “populations” of cultural artefacts, covering pop music, literature, clinical papers and cars.

The biological populations were drawn from long-term studies of animal evolution in the wild, and included everything from Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands to the English snail Cepaea nemoralis. There were more than 300,000 individuals in total.

The artefact populations took a little more thinking. While these clearly don’t actually reproduce, the authors argue they are analogous to reproductive populations because they are not created from thin air. A creator draws upon existing art, scientific papers or poems, “often combining their features in some new way”.

Even a rap song and a country song might have features that can be blended to create something new, they say, as evidenced by the existence of country-rap and hick-hop.

Their “populations” had to have a history, they determined, and to have been derived from unique songs, novels, medical papers and car models, rather than the replicas they spawned. In total, they studied 17,094 unique songs, 2203 novels, 170,577 papers and 2210 car models.

To calculate the rates of change for both groups over time, they chose the Haldanes metric developed by evolutionary biologists which factors in within-population variation, as “variation is the raw material of evolution”.

Overall, they found that cultural and biological traits change at a similar pace.

Showing that the slow pace of cultural change is shaped by directional or stabilising forces, the authors draw an analogy with biology, surmising that it is most likely due to cultural selection by the people who produce the artefacts, distribute them and buy them.

Cultural traits that changed little included pop music with smooth, harmonious vocals and novels about everyday topics, such as travel, passion or dinner, crime and class distinctions.

But there is variation, the authors note; much like Darwin’s finches that evolve rapidly, some technologies, or their attributes, evolve faster than some animals.

“Indeed, it is the perpetual need to replace our mobile phones and update our operating systems that probably gives us the sense that human culture is evolving at a breakneck speed,” they write.

Importantly, therefore, rates of evolution can fluctuate, and some things that seem stable can suddenly change due to environmental forces or revolutions.

For instance, “When cars no longer run on gasoline, the selective forces that have shaped the internal combustion engine for more than a century will also vanish.”

Furthermore, while pop music topics between 1960 and 2010 that entailed loud guitars “were actively maintained by some force,” they conclude, “it does not follow that rock and roll can never die”.

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0802-4
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