Cultural Evolution in the Anthropocene

Joe Brewer • Medium • April 19, 2017

Humanity is lost at sea in a world of unprecedented change.

Where humanity is going, there are no roadmaps. The terrain is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The changes sweeping the Earth right now are literally planetary in scale and so filled with complexity that few among us even have a semblance of knowing what is actually going on. This makes it very difficult to navigate the troubled waters of the 21st Century.

Here are a few examples of things our species has not known in the three million years we’ve existed as “tool using” hominids:

  • Emergence of a Globalized Economic System :: In the last 500 years, a vast web of intercontinental trade arose spanning several empires, evolving into nation-states, and now becoming a truly globalized meshwork of supply chains, trade agreements, human migration patterns, and so forth.
  • Extraction and Consumption of Fossil Fuels :: The last time a species gathered up the waste products of a prior era and consumed them to grow itself we had a mass extinction event. And that was more than two billion years ago! I am referring to the cyanobacteria who excreted oxygen and changed the biochemistry of the Earth. Humans are doing this again by disrupting natural carbon cycles with the combustion of fossil fuels.
  • Explosive Population Growth :: There are now more than 7.4 billion living human beings on Earth. Our population exploded in the last 150 years, well beyond anything in the history of our species. And now we are watching the rapid depletion of vital resources as this huge population gobbles them up — literally as food and metaphorically as the built environments of our globalized civilization.
  • Crossing of Critical Planetary Boundaries :: The Earth has maintained incredible amounts of stability for billions of years through a vastly complex meshwork of self-regulating feedbacks. Thresholds exist (called “planetary boundaries” by the earth scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute) that if crossed will remove this self-regulatory capacity. There is now ample evidence that human activities have pushed us beyond as many as four of these critical operating boundaries for a globalized economic system.
  • A New Pace and Scale of Complexity :: Most of our history was lived out in small tribal communities where each person might know as many as 150 people. Rapid changes, when they happened, were either catastrophic (volcano wipes out village) or disruptive (drought conditions cause the tribe to migrate into a new area). But they never happened at the pace and scale we live with today. As complexity scientists will be quick to tell you, scale matters a great deal! There are qualitative differences in the interdependencies, cascading patterns, and unexpected phase transitions for large, volatile dynamic systems — intuition about smaller systems misleads and confuses more than it helps.
  • Entering A New Geologic Era :: Humans have enjoyed an unusual period of climate stability in which to birth agriculture, build cities, weave trade networks, and grow economic empires. That 11,000 year period is known by geologists as the Holocene. The same geologists now agree that human activities brought the Holocene to an end in the 20th Century. We are now in the “age of humans” dubbed appropriately as the Anthropocene. Our footprints on the Earth will be visible in the very chemical makeup of the planet’s crust hundreds of millions of years from now. This is how unprecedented this time in history really is.

The list could go on from here. My point in creating it is to show that we cannot simply apply the tools and models of past eras to the present situation. Nor can we employ them to forecast our possible futures. Instead we must bring to bear the vast collective knowledge gained across the universities and research centers of the world to build newer, more complex models that make sense of our present and emerging realities. This is what I’ve called the predicament of knowledge as a key challenge for culture design in other writings.

I am going to make a bold claim now—that cultural evolution is THE MOST IMPORTANT body of science for dealing with the global crises arising from this unprecedented time in human history. The study of social behavior, emergent complexity in human systems, how political and economic systems change, the roles of language and technology for shaping human experience, what makes us uniquely human, how landscapes and ecosystems co-evolve across various spans of space and time, and so forth. These are the topics that matter most in the midst of an unprecedented planetary crisis unlike anything our species has seen before.

And yet, almost no one has even heard of cultural evolutionary studies! Even more problematic, many who have heard of it tend to think in out-dated theories from decades (or centuries) ago. They don’t know about the incredible advances that have been made in the last forty years.

My colleagues and I have been carefully going through a birthing process to create the Cultural Evolution Society in the last 18 months. We have already gathered together more than 1800 researchers and cultural change practitioners from around the world. Our first gathering is planned for September of this year at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Seeds have been planted for mobilizing and synthesizing knowledge about cultural change and human systems unlike anything attempted before.

We are rising to the grand challenges of cultural evolution just as our field is needed most. This includes a process to clarify the language used by researchers in dozens of different fields; crafting research agendas around the study of technology evolution, spread of ideas and institutional practices, and social learning in general; merging the study of human and non-human social behavior to deeply understand how we relate to the rest of the natural world; and much more.

My hope is that our efforts will not be too little, too late as a convergence of crises bring our increasingly fragile global system closer to collapse. The levels of inequality have corroded trust in social institutions and brought gridlock to political systems around the world. An ominous threat of war now bubbles up from many places as authoritarian militants take the helm of many nations. A mass extinction event caused by human activities continues to unravel the biosphere of the Earth. And the inability to discern truth from fiction in our decentralized social media environments only increases the social fragmentation that accentuates these undesirable trends.

Humanity needs culture design. We must deeply learn about how cultures evolve and employ this knowledge in holistic, integrative design frameworks for the practical solutions that remain to be envisioned or are in current need of expanded deployment. We must also evolve and change the very structures and social norms of our dominant institutions — for it is the thinking of old that created our problems and that same thinking will not be able to solve them.

How will you be part of the evolution for humans and the Earth? What role or roles will you play in the great transitions now upon us individually and collectively in the 21st Century? Where will you stake your claims in the emergent future that promises to be very different from familiar pasts?

Now is the time to awaken and engage.

Culture Design Labs — Evolving the Future

Patterns always build on what came before. This is true for patterns of culture as well.

The world is getting to be pretty f*cked up now and something needs to be done about it. Humanity is heading toward a future that nobody wants because the cultural systems we are living within have become profoundly disconnected from ecological, political, and economic reality.

The current trajectory of our civilization is overshoot and collapse. We have already passed at least four of the nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating range for the global economy. This truth is frightening. It induces deep-seated anxiety and fear, compelling many of us fully into denial — just when we most need to get our collective act together.

We see it in our political systems. Here in the United States, the two major political parties are so broken that each has elevated its most disliked candidate to run for president. Many factors give rise to this thoroughly inadequate outcome. I’ve written about a few of them here. Relevant for this discussion is the fact that our political systems at present all but guarantee collapse.

It is like being on Easter Island and watching the last tree cut down. Those of us who study ecological patterns can see the writing is already on the wall. Continue on the current path and kiss the amazing advances of technology and science goodbye. All the progress we’ve made in fields like medicine, energy, communications, and manufacturing can quickly come to a halt with the next wave of terrorist attacks and natural disasters, or worse if the speculative bubble in the financial system finally bursts.

I recently asked the provocative question Can we design the future we want? to frame the need for systemic design thinking capable of guiding cultural and institutional change. The key to tackling this convergence of crises is culture — the ideas, social norms, values, beliefs, tools and technologies, relationship patterns, and organizational forms that constitute human cultures around the world.

My collaborators at the Evolution Institute,, and Smart Ecologies are laying the groundwork for a design science of intentional social change to rapidly evolve our systems of government, the practices and structures of market economies, pathways through educational institutions, and journalism models in the media. In short, we are preparing the platforms for collaboration through which millions of people will be able to participate in the wholesale redesign of our civilization.

Nothing less will save us. There are no “silver bullets” here. It is going to be difficult. Many hardships are already unavoidable because it is so late in the game. Hundreds of millions of people will be caught up in the turmoil of cascading systemic collapse and transformation. It will be a very difficult transition and those of us who intend to lead as visionaries, healers, and builders will need a lot of training for what lies ahead.

This is where Culture Design Labs come into the picture.

The emerging field of culture design brings together the many scientific disciplines relevant to establishing an integrative science of social change. Imagine when every community that seeks to guide its own development is able to set up field sites for cultural evolution research. Bringing together researchers with change practitioners — orchestrated and funded by philanthropic institutions and government agencies that provide financial support for applied research and social programs — these field sites will gather data on the cultural patterns driving the evolutionary change process. This knowledge will be essential for practitioners as they guide the change process in their communities.

A few concepts may help you visualize what the Culture Design Labs can do:

  • Cultural “traits” that undergo selection. Every social niche has environmental factors that select for the spread of some ideas and practices, while creating barriers or resistance for others. Learning to analyze these traits will enable communities to become wise managers of their own evolutionary change process.
  • System “logics” seen by pattern analysis. Create an economy around the patterns of growth at all costs and you’ll see it begin to behave like a cancer that threatens its host. Every story has structure. So too with cultural systems. It is simply a matter of learning how to read them.
  • Forget theories of change, create scientific models instead! Few change practitioners treat social change with methodological rigor. They don’t study past behaviors to develop theoretical models about future change. Nor do they formulate questions and gather data to test their understandings. Great strides can be made by simply behaving like scientists.

Already we can begin to see a way forward. Treat culture as a complex system that can be rigorously studied and conscientiously guided using the tools of social science where they are needed most.

There is now so much abundance of knowledge in the world — just pick any field of study and think about how far it has advanced in the last 3o years. Sociology has become married to data science, helping us see ourselves as part of larger social systems. History now archives digital data to track patterns across great spans of time. Urban planning uses high-performance computing to simulate and model changes in ebbs and flows.

In every field (including hundreds more I could mention) we now have very sophisticated tools, advanced communities of practice, and mature institutions. This is true across the social and behavioral sciences, engineering and management, data analytics and technology, and more. What we lack is the vision for how all the pieces fit together.

This is where the Cultural Evolution Society comes in. We have been carefully mapping out the grand challenges for cultural evolution among more than 1500 founding members of this fledgling society — people who engage in education and research initiatives at more than 400 universities in 54 countries. With seed funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we are preparing to launch its first conference in 2017, along with an ambitious agenda to synthesize the biological and social sciences with the humanities so these grand challenges can be tackled in the turbulent decades ahead.

A mission like this will take many years to complete. Humanity doesn’t have that long. Which brings us back to the Culture Design Labs… this is the timeline we are developing for full-scale launch of them around the world.

Launch timeline for Culture Design Labs to assist with the great transition of humanity.

Our foundational assumption is that the planet must be brought back within safe operating range by the end of this century. According to the best science available today, we are already beyond the tipping point for at least four of the Earth’s planetary boundaries (see link above).

This means we need to transition every social institution on Earth from deterioration to regeneration — taking guidance and inspiration from nature by using the principles of biomimicry. Simply stated, it will take at least three to four decades to fully transition the infrastructure for transportation, urban buildings, supply chains, and business models for revenue that provide the financial life blood of transformation.

Making a butterfly from the body of caterpillars takes a few weeks. Doing the same thing for planetary civilization will take much longer.

So we have to start now.

The plan is to launch a series of Culture Design Labs between now and 2020. These projects will become demonstration projects for case studies and best practices — which will need to spread across every conceivable field of knowledge for advanced training in the decade culminating in 2030. This means integration of teaching, research, and practice across academic institutions worldwide.

Why 2030? Because it is widely known that large-scale infrastructure projects can take twenty years from start to finish. If we want to have all infrastructure built for ecological and social regeneration by 2050, we’ll need the designers, planners, and builders to be trained sufficiently that all new projects started in 2030 fit the bill.

And this is why time is precious now. We cannot wait for elected leaders to do the job. They are too busy swindling their constituencies in desperate attempts to remain in power. This is a call-to-action for the rest of us. We are going to need an educated workforce numbering in the tens to hundreds of millions doing this work for their entire lives.

Let’s get started.

For our part, my partners and I are in the process of formulating the research agenda for the first Culture Design Labs — the launch series to be run in the next few years as demonstration projects. Each will target a strategic challenge that has local dimensions yet global implications. A backbone will be needed in the form of a research foundation that maintains the open access databases for social analytics and visualization. A network of funders is being cultivated to provide the endowment for this foundational work. The research community is being organized around platforms for collaboration that can be self-organized by their members.

What you can do is spread the word, then get involved yourself. This means doing the soul searching to find your calling to service in this epic time of need. How will you be part of the Great Transition Beyond Empires that brings an end to global poverty, wealth inequality, and ecological destruction? What will you do to help dismantle the global architecture of wealth extraction?

Sit deeply with these questions. Then prepare yourself for action. Because you will be needed as humanity navigates itself through an endless wave of crises in the next several decades


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