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Cultural evolution



‘We must understand that human nature has been taught many different things by force of circumstance itself, and that reason subsequently worked on these discoveries and made fresh ones, the rate of progress being quicker or slower among different peoples at different times’

Epicurus (in Diogenes Laertius X. 75)

In trying to understand the sophisticated modes of social organization that have enabled humans to populate and dominate planet earth it is necessary to understand not only our genetics (our innate predispositions) and the process of biological and cognitive evolution, but also the ways in which our lives have been changed by social factors. That is, the way that things learned by one generation are passed on to the next generation and ‘improved’ (made more effective, efficient, quicker, bigger, simpler, more succinct, more beautiful etc.) as part of a process that can be called collective learning.

Biological evolution proceeds by organisms adapting to their environments with changes in their genes. Cultural evolution is communities adapting to their environments with changes in their memes (see below). Today we live in a world whose environment of evolutionary adaptation has been constructed by cultural evolution – a human-made environment of biological evolution.

Cultural evolution is a developing field of scientific research on the brink of becoming a unified independent discipline, borrowing from the social sciences, anthropology, economics, psychology, evolutionary biology, and organizational studies. As a discipline it investigates social change largely in terms of social, evolutionary, and biological influences.

Cultural evolution

Cultural evolution?



In the late 19th century society began realigning its belief in existence as a Great Chain of Being to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Just as life evolved, so too did societies. This was regarded as part of the natural law, a view that became known as social Darwinism. Humanity had progressed triumphantly from Stone Age to Bronze Age and Iron Age, advancing inexorably into the Industrial Revolution according to the laws of social evolution. Different kinds of social organization were simply progressive phases that passed sequentially from savagery, to barbarism, to civilization. Insofar as the idea of civilization entailed cities (civis – city-dweller, citizen) a hunter-gatherer could never be considered civilized, but always a savage.

Over time this view lost favour as its underlying moral and ethnic arrogance became more apparent, along with its simplistic assumption of linear cultural progress. It was also becoming evident that the nomadic lifestyle had its advantages, while urban living brought its own unique set of problems.

In the 1960s a new social relativism emerged among anthropologists who suggested that to attempt an even remotely objective measure of societies was an ethnocentric delusion – this was, in reality, simply Westerners appraising other societies in relation to themselves.

The wheel has turned once again now as social organization and its consequences are regarded as factual and measurable, even if our moral conclusions about the consequences are a matter for debate.

Technological complexity does not have automatic implications concerning brainpower, luck, worthiness, or impact on happiness. Nor does it make necessary judgements about its environmental, social, and economic consequences.


Humans have extended their biologically given potential by developing cultural tools (technologies) that make life easier and more efficient. Two kinds of interdependent tools can be distinguished, the physical and the mental. Both can build on former developments in a process of collective learning, and both are associated with the historical increase in complexity of social organization. The physical tools we call material culture (what would physically remain were humans to disappear), the mental tools (beliefs, attitudes, language, mathematics, knowledge of systems of governance) we call symbolic culture.

Cultural Selection Theory, Mimetics

One element of cultural evolution is cultural selection theory which emphasizes Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, while memetics treats change as arising from gene-like adaptive units of information passing through generations of culture.

Value theory

Clearly values have a strong influence on cultural preferences and value theory now claims empirical validity through its disinterested scientific use of psychology, sociology, and economics.

The main criticism of value theory is its potential to become, itself, value-laden. More specifically, when applied to human cultures it is a form of ethnocentrism with western civilization presented as an aspirational goal. Ethnocentricity can treat traditional societies as ‘primitive’ or ‘low-level’ while industrial and post-industrial societies are ‘advanced’ or ‘high-level’ i.e. better, more desirable, the consequence of cultural progress and therefore more advanced.

How are we to solve the dilemma of judging cultures other than our own and, in the case of value-theory, making value judgements about value judgements?

Approached simply, we can either treat all cultures as equally valid (cultural relativism), or we can assume that our own culture is appropriate in some absolute way, or we can choose key values acceptable to all cultures, taking these as self-evident axioms from which value judgements can flow. This web site promotes the key values of human happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing as a benchmark for human culture – this helps in formulating policy but is, of course, open to interpretation.

Modernization theory

Cultural evolution is closely related to a controversial area of social science, modernization theory, often related back to Max Weber (1864–1920) and Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979).

Modernization refers to the progressive transition from pre-modern or traditional societies to modern societies with the adoption of modern practices. Modern states are viewed as wealthier and more powerful, their citizens are freer and enjoying a higher standard of living. Traditional religious beliefs and cultural traits, it is maintained, become less important as modernization takes hold as the individual becomes more important, tending to replace the family or community as the fundamental unit of society.

The World Values Survey

A World Values Survey team has examined the way that values and beliefs influence economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the acceptability of various rights such as gender equality, and the effectiveness of government. This study was initiated in 1981 as a survey of over 400,000 people in 100 countries.

Representation of global values

Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel graph global values through two scored dimensions: on one dimension there are traditional values vs secular-rational values and on the other dimension survival values vs self-expression values. Moving from bottom to top indicates the shift from traditional to secular and from left to right the shift from survival to self–expression. This can be expressed as a tension between authoritarian (traditional) and emancipative values.

World values

Inglehart – Welzel Cultural Map

On one dimension there are traditional values vs secular-rational values and on the other dimension survival values vs self-expression values. Moving from bottom to top indicates the shift from traditional to secular values: from left to right the shift from survival to self–expression as a tension between authoritarian (traditional) and emancipative values. With a rise in standard of living and transition from industrialization to a post-industrial knowledge society values move diagonally from lower-left corner (poor) to upper-right corner (rich) with change in values on both axes. General attitudes of particular countries are also highly correlated with the prevailing philosophical, political and religious ideas
World Values Survey

Traditional values

emphasize the importance of religion, national pride, marriage, parent-child ties, obedience and deference to authority, suspicion of outsiders, and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.


values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.) The outlook is global.

Survival values

emphasize economic and physical security and are linked to relatively ethnocentric outlooks with low levels of trust and tolerance.


values give high priority to environmental protection, increasing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.


• Societies that have high scores in Traditional and Survival values: Zimbabwe, Morocco, Jordan, Bangladesh.
• Societies with high scores in Traditional and Self-expression values: the U.S., most of Latin America, Ireland.
• Societies with high scores in Secular-rational and Survival values: Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Estonia.
• Societies with high scores in Secular-rational and Self-expression values: Sweden, Norway, Japan, Benelux, Germany, France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and some English speaking countries.

Cultural evolution

A theory of cultural evolution (as cultural change over time relating to changing material-social conditions) has been developed by Ronald Inglehart which, in simplified form, observes that with increases in standard of living and the transition from industrialization to a post-industrial knowledge society country values tend to move diagonally from lower-left corner (poor) to upper-right corner (rich) demonstrating a change in the values of both axes. However, it is not surprising that general attitudes of populations are also highly correlated with the prevailing philosophical, political and religious ideas of the particular country.

The largest increase in existential security occurs with the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Secular-rational values and materialism were formulated by philosophers and the left-wing politics side in the French revolution so they appear in countries with a long history of social democratic or socialist policy and where a large portion of the population are highly educated. Survival values are common in eastern-world countries and self-expression values common in the western-world. People in liberal post-industrial economies tend to take survival and freedom of thought for granted, placing a high value on self-expression. The largest increase in individual agency occurs with the transition from industrial to knowledge societies. Consequently, the largest shift from survival to self-expression values happens in this phase.

The value differences between societies around the world show a pronounced culture zone pattern. The strongest emphasis on traditional values and survival values is found in the Islamic societies of the Middle East and, by contrast, the strongest emphasis on secular-rational values and self-expression values is found in the Protestant societies of Northern Europe. These culture zone differences reflect different historical pathways into modernity. Values also differ within societies along such cleavage lines as gender, generation, ethnicity, religious denomination, education, income and so forth.

Democratic aspirations

Freedom of choice and individual independence decrease in priority when survival becomes unsure, in which case the desire for physical and economic security takes a higher priority than democracy. When basic needs are met the emphasis on self-expression values increases. In other words, values change in predictable ways with certain aspects of modernity. People’s priorities shift from traditional to secular-rational values as their sense of existential security increases (or backwards from secular-rational values to traditional values as their sense of existential security decreases). Consequently, the largest shift from traditional towards secular-rational values happens in this phase. The World Values Survey suggests that the widespread desire for self-expression is important in the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions. With industrialization and the rise of postindustrial society, new generations value self-expression more and countries with authoritarian regimes face increasing pressure towards political liberalization. This process contributed to a Third Wave Democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is one of the factors contributing to recent processes of democratization.

Citizen empowerment

World Values Survey research suggests that the empowerment of ordinary citizens can lead to democracy motivating the desire for democracy and leading to regime change. Action resources like education and the promotion of self-expression tend towards democratic institutions.

Globalization & converging values

Over the past 30 years, the world has witnessed profound changes in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres. This has included major technological advances (e.g. internet, smartphones, social media) that have increased the trend toward global interconnection, interdependence, and common interest.

Analysis of data from the World Values Survey indicate that this convergence does not apply to values. Norms concerning marriage, family, gender and sexual orientation show dramatic changes with most advanced industrial societies moving in the same direction and at similar speed. However, countries that have remained economically stagnant have shown little value change resulting in an increasing divergence of the values of low-income countries and those of high-income countries.

Gender Values

WVS research suggests that support for gender equality is not just a consequence of democratization, it is part of a broader cultural change that is transforming industrialized societies with mass demands for increasingly democratic institutions. Although a majority of the world’s population still believes that men make better political leaders than women, this view is fading in advanced industrialized societies, and also among young people in less prosperous countries.


World Values Survey research covers several important aspects of people’s religious orientation including religious service attendance and the importance of religious belief. Data from 2000 showed that 98% of the public in Indonesia sy that religion is very important in their lives while in China only 3% considered religion important. The question of the relation between religion and politics is being explored.

Happiness and Life Satisfaction

The WVS has shown that from 1981 to 2007 happiness rose in 45 of the 52 countries for which long-term data are available. Since 1981, economic development, democratization, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice, which in turn has led to higher levels of happiness around the world. The popular statistics website Nationmaster publishes a simplified world happiness scale derived from the WVS data. The WVS website provides access to the WVS data, allowing users to carry out more complex analyses, such as comparing happiness levels over time or across socio-economic groups. One of the most striking shifts measured by the WVS was the sharp decline in happiness experienced in Russian and many other ex-communist countries during the 1990s.

Key points

The following is a list of summary points in the World Value Survey:

  • Generally speaking, groups whose living conditions provide people with a stronger sense of existential security and individual agency nurture a stronger emphasis on secular-rational values and self-expression values.

  • However, the within-societal differences in people’s values are dwarfed by a factor five to ten by the between-societal differences. On a global scale, basic living conditions differ still much more between than within societies, and so do the experiences of existential security and individual agency that shape people’s values.

  • A specific subset of self-expression values—emancipative values—combines an emphasis on freedom of choice and equality of opportunities. Emancipative values, thus, involve priorities for lifestyle liberty, gender equality, personal autonomy and the voice of the people.[8]

    • Emancipative values constitute the key cultural component of a broader process of human empowerment. Once set in motion, this process empowers people to exercise freedoms in their course of actions.

    • If set in motion, human empowerment advances on three levels. On the socio-economic level, human empowerment advances as growing action resources increase people’s capabilities to exercise freedoms. On the socio-cultural level, human empowerment advances as rising emancipative values increase people’s aspirations to exercise freedoms. On the legal-institutional level, human empowerment advances as widened democratic rights increase people’s entitlements to exercise freedoms.

    • Human empowerment is an entity of empowering capabilities, aspirations, and entitlements. As an entity, human empowerment tends to advance in virtuous spirals or to recede in vicious spirals on each of its three levels.

    • As the cultural component of human empowerment, emancipative values are highly consequential in manifold ways. For one, emancipative values establish a civic form of modern individualism that favours out-group trust and cosmopolitan orientations towards others.

    • Emancipative values encourage nonviolent protest, even against the risk of repression. Thus, emancipative values provide social capital that activates societies, makes publics more self-expressive, and vitalizes civil society. Emancipative values advance entire societies’ civic agency.

    • If emancipative values grow strong in countries that are democratic, they help to prevent movements away from democracy.

    • If emancipative values grow strong in countries that are undemocratic, they help to trigger movements towards democracy.

    • Emancipative values exert these effects because they encourage mass actions that put power holders under pressures to sustain, substantiate or establish democracy, depending on what the current challenge for democracy is.

    • Objective factors that have been found to favour democracy (including economic prosperity, income equality, ethnic homogeneity, world market integration, global media exposure, closeness to democratic neighbours, a Protestant heritage, social capital and so forth) exert an influence on democracy mostly insofar as these factors favour emancipative values.

    • Emancipative values do not strengthen people’s desire for democracy, for the desire for democracy is universal at this point in history. But emancipative values do change the nature of the desire for democracy. And they do so in a double way.

    • For one, emancipative values make people’s understanding of democracy more liberal: people with stronger emancipative values emphasize the empowering features of democracy rather than bread-and-butter and law-and-order issues

    • Next, emancipative values make people assess the level of their country’s democracy more critical: people with stronger emancipative values rather underrate than overrate their country’s democratic performance.

    • Together, then, emancipative values generate a critical-liberal desire for democracy. The critical-liberal desire for democracy is a formidable force of democratic reforms. And, it is the best available predictor of a country’s effective level of democracy and of other indicators of good governance. Neither democratic traditions nor cognitive mobilization account for the strong positive impact of emancipative values on the critical-liberal desire for democracy.

    • Emancipative values are the most single important factor in advancing the empowerment of women. Economic, religious, and institutional factors that have been found to advance women’s empowerment, do so for the most part because they nurture emancipative values.

    • Emancipative values change people’s life strategy from an emphasis on securing a decent subsistence level to enhancing human agency. As the shift from subsistence to agency affects entire societies, the overall level of subjective well-being rises.

    • The emancipative consequences of the human empowerment process are not a culture-specific peculiarity of the ‘West.’ The same empowerment processes that advance emancipative values and a critical-liberal desire for democracy in the ‘West,’ do the same in the ‘East’ and in other culture zones

    • The social dominance of Islam and individual identification as Muslim both weaken emancipative values. But among young Muslims with high education, and especially among young Muslim women with high education, the Muslim/Non-Muslim gap over emancipative values closes.

    A coherent overview of all these findings can be found in Welzel’s Freedom Rising (for a full citation, see bibliography below).

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


Inglehart-Wetzel graph of world values

World values
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