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Convergent and Divergent Theories of Cultural Evolution

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All cultures change, this is normal. Even rapid change, mass assimilation, disintegration are not oddities in the timeline of human cultural evolution. With each ebb and flow of a socio-political empire across large portions of the world, cultures, traditions, and languages are rapidly changed, assimilated, killed off, and new cultures are created.

What is culture?

Culture is an indoctrinated codex of meaning that is typically learned in childhood. It often manifests itself in a set of learned responses to a complex array of inter-personal, natural, and spiritual symbols. It is a way of cultivating life within a certain environment. It is a set of programmed responses to various scenarios and circumstances. It is a way a person is taught to see themselves within their communities, other groups, nature, and the cosmos. It is a of collection attributes — whether real or perceived — that separates Us from Them. Culture is often most visibly manifested in religion, art, family/ social structure, living strategies, and work.

Cultures separate and diversify, come together and unify, separate and diversify. Cultures move and change in waves. It is my impression that the convergent/ divergent models of biological evolution can be used as a lens to view the patterns of change in cultures.

Convergent evolution of cultures

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches. –Convergent evolution as defined by Science Daily

Different cultures exposed to similar environmental (meaning social, economic, political, climate, natural resource, ecological) pressures will often develop similar traits, belief systems, and living strategies.  The forest people of one part of the planet often devise similar living/ social strategies as those of another part, as do mountain cultures, coastal peoples, herding/ nomad societies, urban dwellers, and agricultural communities.

We are living in world that is quickly becoming urbanized. The people of the countryside, mountains, and forests are becoming city people, and the resulting shift in culture — which is often attributed to globalization — reflects this: the living systems of urban cultures resemble each other everywhere.

Divergent evolution of culture

Divergent evolution occurs when a group from a specific population develops into a new species. In order to adapt to various environmental conditions, the two groups develop into distinct species due to differences in the demands driven by the environmental circumstances. -Divergent Evolution

When groups of one culture separate, when they move apart and contact wans, when they experience different environmental pressures, they change and often become very different cultures. We see this throughout the world: as empires spread, cultural diversity is lost, but when they recede, new cultures spring up in their wake. Hungarians are proud to tell people that they descend from the Mongols or Tibetans, but their modern culture is nothing like it is on the plateaus and steppes of Central and Northern Asia. In a more immediate sense, when a sect from a remote minority culture moves into an urban environment they often develop different practices to accommodate the change in living strategy. These sects culturally diverge fast, often showing little sign of their rural roots within in a couple generations. Another example can be viewed in the populating of the Americas by Europeans, where Spaniards, Germans, French, the English etc . . . soon blended together and with the indigenous populations forming very separate and distinct cultures from which they sprung.

Environmental impacts on culture

Bio/ Cultural evolution

Environmental pressures —  meaning everything in the socio/ political/ economic/ natural world that impacts groups of humans — work to shape culture, and changes in this environment will produce changes in culture. Unlike biological evolution, which takes thousands of years, cultural adaption to new circumstances can occur in a relatively small handful of years — sometimes only needing a single generation.

Geneticists have shown that every human being has the same biological and cultural roots which extend back to a few groups on the savannas of Africa 60,000 years ago. As various groups separated, they changed, their cultures diverged, and diversity became the rule. Throughout history, we have watched these cultures grow back together just to break apart again in an ongoing mish mash of traditions rising, dying, and rising again. This is nothing new.

What is unique about modern times is that a singular empire is taking over the entire globe, the environmental pressures on the bulk of cultures today are becoming ever more and more similar, and a common framework for commerce, governance, and even societal structure is arising (or being opposed upon) much of the plnet. The dominant cultural framework is a way of life based off capitalism, commerce, materialism, owner/ manager/ employee relations, nuclear family units, formalized education, the scientific method, the breakdown of old family, sex, and community roles and dichotomies, the conception of ideas such as individualism, and, in part, the disintegration of cultural, religious, and geographic divisions between the myraid people of planet earth. Some call this globalization, but it is my impression that this process was well underway long before any international free trade pacts were signed.

Each culture of the world appropriates the context of globalization in its own way, mixing some deep seeded aspects of their old culture within the context of a new (or rapidly changing) environment — stripping away what is no longer fits into this new paradigm and adapting what remains. Traditional family, community, class, and sex roles, along with complex forms of traditional arts and music are, apparently, out. While nuclear family structures, social media, post-industrial work frameworks, and urban living are in. We are in the midst of a world wide cultural revolution.

Few places in the world are totally sheltered anymore from influence of this dominant cultural paradigm, few communities exist in a bubble removed from this “One World System.” The internet is nearly global, the Outside World is becoming more and more easy for once removed communities to grasp, and the idea of a Better Life Elsewhere has infected the globe. The cultural hovel, the autonomous community is becoming a thing of the past.

“We have divorce now!” a young Indian woman once proclaimed to me with unabashed positive excitement in Bangalore.

And that’s a good thing?

Choice, as a concept, now exists in many cultures in the world where kids once just followed in line behind their parents — continuing traditions, maintaining values, constrained by the cultural context they were born into, and, more or less, completing the life-cycle at the same point where they began. Now, in much of the world, the traditional cultural circle is being broken, and, to ever varying degrees, is being bent in many different directions as the young of the planet are choosing paths which were not available to their parents. The gulf between these two generations is incredible, as the cyclic rounds of traditional lifestyles are being broken just about everywhere. Cultures all around the world are changing, morphing, and adapting to the new political/ economic/ social order. As with most any cultural upheaval, complying with and adapting to change is perhaps unavoidable: you must live your own time.

Perhaps divorce is a great cultural development for people who never experienced this option before. The ability to choose your own marriage partner for yourself probably also doesn’t sound too bad. The opportunity to get an education and attempt to raise your socio/ economic standing is another incentive for leaving the village and moving to a city. A rising, and in some cases new, middle class is taunting the the people of once poor countries — like China/ India — as wealth pours in like never before. On the heels of the globalization of economic systems comes the globalization of ideas, entertainment, art, ideas, culture. Perhaps inherent to the One World System is exposure to other cultural concepts, which often act to corrode many long standing, uncontested traditions within a culture and, in some cases, what could be called ignorance and prejudice.

What is often called cultural imperialism is really just cultural absorbtion in the old sense. Cultures have generally always been sponges of external influence: one culture takes what it can use from another and then runs with it in their own direction. If you look through the archaeological/ ethnohistoric record it is obvious that various groups have always absorbed, appropriated, and borrowed technologies, arts, and even traditions from other peoples if they felt it to be to their benefit. This is normal. Though the cultures of the world are currently changing very rapidly today, borrowing elements from other cultures en masse, I do not see them becoming cultural clones. Just as the French could not make the people of their colonies into little Frenchmen, the world is not becoming full of little Americas, or Europes, or Japans. The mainstream cultures of developing countries have certainly taken influence from powerful foreign cultures, but they have taken this influence in their own direction and, some could say, used it to their own advantage.

I do not fear that we will soon be looking at a One World Culture. While certain aspects of traditional cultures which no longer fit into the new paradigm will be shed, an underlying baseline of cultural “isness” certainly remains. If you turn on the television in Latin America, over 90% of what you see will be an expression of Latino culture. You still have the same crap — soap operas, game shows, talk shows, variety shows — that were pioneered in the USA or Europe, but they have been adapted through the lens of the local culture. If you turn on the radio almost anywhere in the world, you will mostly hear regional artists playing popular regional music. Like a species of animal in the wild, cultures will adapt to their changing circumstances, but will often remain intact as distinct entities.

(For the issues related to minority cultures losing tradition and identity as they assimilate into the majority go to Preserving Culture is More Than Just Arts and Crafts.)

The environmental pressures on cultures has become very similar all over the world. With the worldwide spread of the corporate/ democracy/ capitalist/ CEO/ manager/ worker infrastructure, cultures have responded by adapting in kind. Perhaps the reason why upper/ middle/ working class culture in India/ China/ Mexico is beginning to resemble that of the USA or Europe is because the prevailing pressures on these societies are now very similar. When put in similar circumstances cultures convergently evolve. Add to this the fact that most countries are exposed and, to an ever greater degree, have access to the repertoire of problem solving technologies/ methods/ devices of just about any other country, and this converging cultural evolution is super charged.

As for the rise of concepts such as individualism, sexism, racism etc . . . I believe that this is an inherent part of contemporary world cultural evolution which comes from the interconnectedness of different peoples responding to similar social, economic, political, and other environmental pressures. It makes no sense in the global culture for women to be cloistered into the home as second class, uneducated housewives when they could otherwise be bringing in an income; while very deeply rooted and widespread institutions such as racism and xenophobia are now barriers to commerce; and the traditional family structure really goes out the window when the young are living jet set lifestyles in modern cities and can’t/ don’t want to take care of their elderly parents.

I then began questioning her as to why and how she ended up in the old-folks home, as well as her feelings on the ‘modernizing’ India. Her mood became a drear, and she went on to tell us that she ended up in the nursing home because her son was a ‘modern’ man and did not respect the time-honed ways of her Indian traditions. She said that when she lived with his family they quarreled continuously, and that their mind-sets were not of the same times. –Retirement homes in India

Cultures respond to environmental changes just like animals, plants, and bacteria, and they also absorb the influence of other cultures if it helps them to better adapt to these changing circumstances. What we know of culture is but a blip on the radar of human existence. Thousands cultures we’ve never even heard of have faded from view throughout time, taking with them tens of thousands of practices and languages we can only dream of. This is normal. We are currently in a state of worldwide cultural convergence, but, like the empires of old, there is a good chance that this is just another snap of our fingers on the timeline of our species. Cultures will more than likely soon separate once again, experience different environmental pressures, and divergently evolve yet again.

As I was told by a group of old folks in a retirement home in India in 2007, “This will not last, this cannot last.”

This article is part three in a series on globalization and the world wide cultural revolution it is creating. 

Series Navigation<< Preserving Cultural Traditions is More than Just Arts and Crafts
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Filed under: Anthropology, Changing Cultures, Culture and Society, Globalization

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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