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Society As Platform — A New Frontier in Complexity Science

Society As Platform — A New Frontier in Complexity Science

Cities are profoundly complex incarnations of cultural evolution. Image Credit: Vincent Laforet

Humanity is now confronted with new challenges unlike anything we have experienced before. Our evolved history as a species has not prepared us for what is happening now. It is time to start seeing culture as a complex system that evolves according to Darwinian principles.

What do international terrorism, human-caused climate change, and the rise of speculative bubbles in finance have in common? At their heart, each is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon that is often confused with its more superficial elements associated with religion, politics, technology, or economics. There are hidden “governing dynamics” that arise as ideologies and worldviews, diverse modes of social organization with associated norms and practices, and the foundational ontologies and epistemologies that define what is real and knowable for a given society.

Humanity has gone from subsistence living where our daily survival was a struggle to weave healthy relationships with the natural ecosystems around us to one of living within social niches of our own creation. Long ago, it was rocks carved into spear tips that determined our ability to acquire food. Now it is the use of fossil fuels extracted by large machines, which are then sent to refineries for modification and redistribution, eventually finding their way into chemical fertilizers used to extract nutrients from the soil.

All of this arose through the processes of cultural evolution.

Every major challenge in the world today is deeply and profoundly cultural — and cultural systems are always complex. They are comprised of many interacting parts with critical interdependencies that are not reducible to usefully meaningful modular parts. There are threshold effects, phase transitions, chaotic attractors, various kinds of self-organization, and all are deeply dynamic and emergent as evolutionary processes at the intersection of culture and the environment.

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Wisdom: Re-Tuning for a Sustainable Future

Mankind achieved civilization by developing and learning to follow rules that often forbade to do what his instincts demanded…Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. Man became intelligent because there was tradition (habits) between instinct and reason…

Friedrich Hayek
The Fatal Conceit, 1988

Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials.

Robert Kennedy
Speech, University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

Below is a slightly adapted excerpt from The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived by Peter C. Whybrow, MD.


 

It is abundantly clear that humanity must shift its modern view of progress and relationship with nature if we are to have any hope of living sustainably on this planet. But in completing the jigsaw essential to reimagining progress, and regaining balance within the natural ecology, it is necessary to understand the roles that biological and cultural evolution play. In our social evolution as a species, biology and culture run on parallel tracks, but they do so at different speeds. Thus biology, quickly and disruptively, can be outpaced by cultural change. As I have detailed in The Well-Tuned Brain, a significant number of the challenges that we face in the developed world are rooted in this mismatch.

To better grasp how this puzzle comes together, I take you back to a primary source of knowledge about evolution. In the Pacific Ocean, straddling the Equator approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador is found the Galápagos archipelago. This remote collection of volcanic islands, as Charles Darwin described them when he traveled there, is “a little world within itself.”

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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