There’s an unsettling premise at the heart of Joe Brewer’s life’s work.
Brewer is a change strategist dedicated to ensuring a thriving global civilization exists 100 years from now—and he believes this is becoming less likely every year. There’s rising instability in our fragile and rapidly changing biosphere, he says, and society is unlikely to escape harm.
“We are going through a period of planetary change, and there is a collapse dynamic that’s already happening. The global scale social complexity we have today is at risk, and we may lose it,” he told me in a conversation for Singularity Hub.
During our discussion, Brewer cited a list of urgent crises including climate change, soil degradation, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss alongside techno-social issues like the breakdown of trust in institutions, a lack of effective governance structures, the increased ability for manipulation with propaganda and misinformation, and extreme structural wealth inequality.
To address these challenges, he has devoted himself to developing and promoting the application of a multidisciplinary set of tools in a field of study called “cultural evolution.”
The goal? To help us make ethical decisions about how to govern society.
“If we want to make ethical design choices for how to build communities, we have to connect our thinking to biology. That’s a big reason for integrating fields of knowledge across the social sciences, humanities, and biology,” he says. “If you don’t make design choices about how to govern that match how living systems work—then you’re going to create maladaptive responses and create suffering.”
Brewer believes evolutionary theory, a foundation of biological sciences, along with complexity science, embodiment philosophy, and a long list of other areas of study can provide the framework for synthesizing the social sciences, humanities, and biology.
He hopes we can use the resulting analytical tools to better argue for and manage social change.
So What Exactly Is Cultural Evolution (and Why Is It Important?)
Brewer begins by outlining the basics of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Simply stated, Darwin said evolution is a combination of variation, selection, and retention of certain traits. In a given population of a species, those traits which yield a greater chance of surviving and producing offspring are selected and retained over time.
Applied to culture, cultural evolution is the variation and selected retention of cultural traits across a group of people. Those traits could be anything from how many people use iPhones instead of Android to who uses handshaking as a greeting.
“Cultural evolution involves looking at the statistical composition of traits across a population you are interested in studying along with their compositional changes over time,” Brewer said. “[And that matters because] all of the global challenges we now face are processes of and consequences of cultural evolution.”
To understand why, Brewer described a foundational concept from behavioral science called behavioral flexibility—the basis from which culture itself emerges. Specifically, it refers to the way plants and animals respond to changes in their environment.
“Think of a volcano eruption, or a big storm which changes the landscape, or any kind of environmental change. Some species will respond with rigid and instinctual behaviors—while other animals, like mammals, have more behavioral flexibility and adapt by varying their behavioral patterns,” he said.
This means an organism that operates with strict instinctual responses and low behavioral flexibility will display behaviors that are tightly coupled to changes in their environment. In this sense, that organism operates with a fixed set of responses—a sort of linear cause and effect dynamic—and if those responses aren’t suitably matched for a particular environmental shock then that species goes extinct.
Contrast that to animals with broader sets of behaviors (like humans) which can diverge into a wide variety of responses. For example, humans developed the cultural practice of using tools around three million years ago. This expanded our options for managing the environment and kickstarted a long history of developing technology.
For humans, as a species, that’s been a very good thing for most of history. The use of technology enabled us to adapt to our world in clever ways.
The problem, Brewer says, is that because of behavioral flexibility, changes in the environment and changes in behavior can become disconnected from each other over time. And today, the same behaviors that were once adaptive in the past have led to changes in the environment that are creating threats and problems now.
“We’ve created this misguided separation between the techno-social and environmental problems we face, but really they both grow out of this multi-million-year process of increasing behavioral flexibility for our species as humans.”
And now, within the past century, our actions are having planet-wide impact.
How Can Cultural Evolution Help?
Applying insights yielded by the study of cultural evolution to global problems, according to Brewer, allows us to be intentional in designing social outcomes in two specific ways.
First, they let us diagnose limitations in how we govern ourselves and manage cultural change. For example, a community might have theoretical ideas about the benefits of, say, implementing a sustainable food system but no way of enacting those ideas.
Brewer cited cooperation as one example to make this point.
“If we look at the study of cooperation, we see that there are conditions that need to be met for cooperation to occur. We have tools for modeling and simulating those conditions and can test them.”
According to Brewer, those conditions might include whether people in a group cheat, whether they have certain shared social norms, or how much inequality exists in the system. By using the tools of cultural evolution we might discover, for example, that because some individuals in the system had a lot more wealth than others, cooperative behavior failed.
“The actual process of governing and decision making is where things tend to break down, and cultural evolution gives us a way of diagnosing those issues,” Brewer says.
The second function of cultural evolution involves using it as a design practice and being intentional about guiding culture toward some desired outcome in a scientifically rigorous way.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t advocate an oppressive form of top-down control, but rather focuses on bottom-up trial and error approaches to cultural change—approaches that can become more scientifically rigorous over time.
For Brewer, the real step forward is treating places where social change is occurring as field sites for rigorous cultural evolution research.
“This will enable cross-cultural and multi-location studies to occur that become increasingly rigorous to the point that we can scientifically inform the policies and practices that help communities around the world evolve toward their desired goals.”
Having the capacity to make scientific arguments for a proposed social change certainly would be a powerful tool for culture designers, policy makers, and change strategists going forward.
I did wonder about using such practices in unethical ways, but Brewer pointed out that this is already very much the reality.
“The most nefarious cases of cultural evolution are already being done. The manipulation of public opinion using fear-based messaging and complex psycho-demographic targeting on social media are control systems of nefarious design. This is already happening and urgently needs to be undone,” he pointed out.
Brewer is launching The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution, a research initiative working to launch a network of culture design centers around the world, where testable models of change can take form.
In this way, Brewer hopes to create as many local experiments in the management of social change as possible—a decentralized and iterative approach toward uncovering the cultural practices that support resilient and sustainable communities.
“Of all the communities that exist in the world, some of them are going to go extinct. The goal is to have as many as possible of these local communities developing resilience for the long term,” he says.
Essentially, Brewer’s strategy is one of a diversified portfolio approach to ensuring that our species comes out the other side of whatever shocks may be coming. A distributed network of local communities, each building resilience, is one way to prevent the loss of our species’ scientific, technological, and social complexity in the event of catastrophic collapse.
Many may find the idea humanity might be heading toward existential catastrophe hard to consider, and some outright reject it. Regardless, it’s a scenario worth preparing for.
Brewer’s mission is to discover the ways groups of humans, a behaviorally flexible and complex animal, can weather the storm ahead—and in many ways is already here.
To learn more about the field of cultural evolution you can visit the website for the The Center for Applied Cultural Evolution.