On the Origin of Culture: A New Species of Evolution

The idea that culture is an emergent property of human interaction isn’t novel, but thinking about culture as a kind of emergent evolutionary process takes this idea to a new level.

Our physical evolution has been influenced by the nature and nurture of the human body over time. As an organic system, the body is an emergent expression of genetic codes. We could imagine that our cultural evolution involves the nature and nurture of a system of symbolic communication (including symbolic thought as an internalized form of communication). This system of symbolic communication is itself an emergent expression of the symbolic codes embedded within language. Perhaps, like a conceptual genome, language enables the emergence of culture as a species of dynamic systems with lives – and maybe even evolutionary processes – of their own.

WILSON: Teilhard was ahead of his time scientifically … much of what he was saying actually passed muster from a modern evolutionary perspective. And the main thing he said … is that in one sense the origin of man was just another species. We were just another primate. But in another sense, we were an entirely new evolutionary process and that made us in some ways as significant as the evolution of life.

To translate that into modern terms, our capacity for symbolic thought is something that began, for the most part, with humans. So symbolic thought as a mechanism of inheritance and the enormous diversity of what we do as cultures … it really is a new evolutionary process …

[C]ultural evolution can produce this field of behaviors that enables humans to adapt to certainly all environments … Put us humans in a new environment and we’ll adapt, but only because we have this flexible system of symbolic thought that enables us to adapt. That’s why it qualifies as a new evolutionary process[.]

Teilhard de Chardin’s “Planetary Mind” and Our Spiritual Evolution | Ursula King • David Sloan Wilson • Andrew Revkin • Krista Tippett