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Extending Biological Evolution as a Metaphor for Cultural Development

Elise Niemeyer's picture

           Patterns of cultural development are far from predictable.  Innumerable factors affect the growth of cultures and contribute to their unique qualities.  There is, however, an organization, or pattern, that can be observed in the development of human cultures over time.  It can be useful to discuss this development in terms of Darwinian evolution in order to understand some of the motivations and outcomes of cultures as a whole.  While a strict application of biological evolution may not be appropriate (Dennett 345), exploring the metaphor can provide insight into the distinct combination of human ingenuity and natural pressure that has driven cultural development into the modern age.

            The circumstances of cultural emergence are the subject of much speculation.  Some scholars would argue that human culture originated with early hunting and gathering tribes, while others maintain that verbal or even written language is required for culture to exist.  Regardless of which definition is used, there appears to be a clear trend toward cultural diffusion from a central source.  If the “Out of Africa” model is used, early hunting and gathering cultures can be traced to the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa and their spread across the world, diversifying and specializing to fit their environment (“Homo sapiens”).  Similarly, the origin of written language can be attributed to early Mesopotamian culture, a concept that expanded from the Middle East and was adapted by various groups to fit their own linguistic needs (Van De Mieroop 28).  In this way, cultural development and expansion is analogous to the common ancestors of biological evolution.  The rich cultural diversity existing today can be traced to certain smaller groups in the past.

            The impact of environmental pressures and reproductive success can also be extended beyond the biological context and used to describe factors affecting cultural development.  Environmental impact can be a primary force behind cultural adaptation.  Both the physical world surrounding a group of people and their social and ideological climate cause differences in how that group interacts when compared to groups in different environmental situations.  Environmental differences caused the coastal ancient Athenians to develop a sea-oriented culture, while their counterparts in land-locked Sparta developed a militaristic society (Biers 195).  Similarly, the “reproductive success” of individuals within a culture determines unique adaptations and ultimately determines the future of the society.  The Yoruba people of Nigeria practice polygamy to increase the health and safety of their children, a custom deemed immoral in Western cultures (Oyewumi 53). 

            With the concept of reproductive success comes the concept of extinction in Darwinian evolution.  Though it is rare to deem a culture as truly extinct, there are many that have ceased to function on a significant scale, the Aztecs, the Etruscans, the Mesopotamians, and others.  The problem with drawing a direct parallel in this instance is that all cultures influence each other, and some of their unique attributes carry over even into modern times (Dennett 348).  Thus, the religious practices of ancient Near Eastern cultures may be lost, but elements of their art and architecture still permeate modern society.   While culture in terms of a civilization or society may cease to exist independently, some part of it will inevitably be passed on to the cultures that succeed it.  In this way the concept of extinction does not apply to cultural evolution to the same extent that it describes biological processes.

            In all of these ways, it is helpful to use the metaphor of biological evolution to describe cultural development.  However, if the analogy is extended beyond its usefulness, it becomes easily manipulated to support some rather spurious conclusions, namely Social Darwinism and cultural superiority.   The assumption that cultures which have come to dominate the modern world are some how fitter, or more successful, is straying into the minefields of classism and racism, views that have been repeatedly proven as lacking in merit.  Instead of manipulating biological evolution to support superiority and discrimination, the metaphor can be used as a leveling agent.  If the biological model is extended to cultural development in some basic areas, then any culture that survives, no matter how small on the global power scale, is equally successful.

            The other major difference between biological and cultural evolution is the role of randomness versus human intent.  Biological evolution is completely random; it does not follow a pre-determined design or sustain significant impact from the volition of the organisms that are evolving.  Cultural evolution is very different. Human intelligence, initiative, and inventiveness drive the process nearly as much, if not more, than external factors or random developments (Dennett 355).  Thus, cultural progression may exhibit some of the hallmarks of Darwinian evolution, descent from a common ancestor, response to environmental pressures, varying degrees of reproductive success, and the cessation of certain characteristics, but the path of this development can be affected or even orchestrated by humans themselves.  This fundamental difference sets culture apart from biology in an evolutionary sense.

            Though a strict correlation between the two concepts may not be possible or beneficial, the parallels provide unique insight into the process of cultural evolution.  It is an organic process that in some ways flows in the same patterns as Darwinian evolution and responds to the same pressures.  By viewing development in terms of evolution the baffling complexities and unique qualities of culture become more comprehensible.   The role that humans have played in designing their own destinies cannot be denied, but an evolutionary process seems to be at work within culture on a more basic, universal level.




Biers, William R.  The Archaeology of Greece.  2nd ed.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

“Homo sapiens: Out of Africa.” BBC.  19 Mar 2007.                                                                                     <>.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke.  The Invention of Women.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Van De Mieroop, Marc.  A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BC.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.