Culture, cultural transmission, and cultural evolution arise from genetically evolved psychological adaptations for acquiring ideas, beliefs, values, practices, mental models, and strategies from other individuals by observation and inference. Cultural evolution, historically also known as sociocultural evolution, was originally developed in the 19th century by anthropologists stemming from Charles Darwin’s research on evolution. Epigenetic inheritance adds another dimension to the modern picture of evolution. The genome changes slowly, through the processes of random mutation and natural selection. It takes many generations for a genetic trait to become common in a population. The epigenome, on the other hand, can change rapidly in response to signals from the environment. And epigenetic changes can happen in many individuals at once. Through epigenetic inheritance, some of the experiences of the parents may pass to future generations. At the same time, the epigenome remains flexible as environmental conditions continue to change.
In 1809 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) described a two-part mechanism by which change was gradually introduced. The first part of Lamarck’s theory claimed species start out simple and consistently move towards complexity and perfection. The second part dealt with the inheritance of acquired characteristics. He believed that changes in environment or the conditions of life react upon organism in the direction of their needs or functions. This Lamarckian inheritance (mechanism of evolution) involved the inheritance of acquired traits. He believed that the traits changed or acquired over an individual’s lifetime could be passed down to its offspring. That is, when environments changed organisms had to change their behavior to survive. Fifty years after the publication of the ideas around Lamarckian inheritance, Charles Darwin published his Theory of Natural Selection. The predictive power of Darwin’s theory rests on its specification of systemic selective forces, based on the algorithm of variation, selection and retention.
Multiple theories of evolution were in circulation during the 19th century. During the Victorian period, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), one of the most discussed English thinkers at this time, urged the importance of examining social phenomena in a scientific way. As a young man he was a civil engineer, his curiosity peeked by the many fossils he discovered while excavating new passages for railways. His reading of Lyell’s Principle of Geology moved him to consider seriously the Lamarckian hypothesis. He developed the concept that eventually was identified as social Darwinism. He believed that natural selection applies to human societies, social classes and individual as well as to biological species developing over geological time. This supported the doctrine of social Darwinism promoted to justify laissez-faire economics, thought best to promote unfettered competition between individuals, and the gradual improvement of society through the survival of the fittest.
Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) developed a theory of cultural evolution intended to account for the development of free-market capitalism, and explained why it works so well. He believed that it had allowed him to achieve what no earlier economist had – to paint “what now seems to me a tolerably clear picture of the nature of the spontaneous order.” Hayek was closely exposed to ideas of colleagues that had allowed him to achieve understanding with respect to evolutionary theories, during his 12 years at the London School of Economics. One of these colleagues, Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886-1966), was an adherent of neo-Malthusian ideas and Galton’s eugenics. He was concerned about all kinds of social ills and problems – he saw a solution in eugenics for the engineering of society into a better condition. Another colleague with influence was Julian Huxley (1887-1975), an Oxford zoologist who wrote books, including The Vital Importance of Eugenics in 1933 which basically advocated a long-term goal that degenerate individuals were stopped from reproduction as quickly as possible.
Cultural evolution, unlike Darwinian evolution, is of acquired characteristics. The application of evolutionary ideas to socioeconomic systems became an increasingly prominent theme in the work of Friedrich Hayek. Hayek claims social evolution rests upon the transmission of acquired characteristics is fully supported by Lamarckism, that is, his theory of cultural evolution simulates Lamarckism. Unlike true conservatives, who see in both the present and the past, traditions to be recaptured and preserved at almost any cost, Hayek recognizes that society is the product of continuing evolutionary processes that are unintended consequences of the choices and values of the humans who constitute them. Hayek maintains that with social evolution “the decisive factor is not the selection of physical and inheritable properties of individuals but the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits…the whole cultural inheritance which is passed by learning and imitation.”1 Because acquired characteristics may be passed on, cultural evolution resembles Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution, and indeed this sort of evolutionary thinking is older than Darwin’s.
John Cairns, Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (1963-1968), reported on an experiment in 1968 that suggested gene mutations were not solely the result of random chemical events as is currently perceived. In the experiment bacteria were slowly killed and then were given a chance to respond to the stress. The organism his team used was a strain of Escherichia coli that lacked the enzyme to use lactose as a metabolite. Into the organism they inserted scrambled code for the enzyme necessary to grow. Initially there was no growth, then two days later colonies appeared on the agar. Cairns called this process adaptive mutation – proposing they were mutations, or genetic changes that were much less random and more purposeful than traditional evolution. He claimed the results are consistent with Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. Some social scientists who were applying evolutionary theory began analyzing problems from the Lamarckian inheritance perspective.
Just over a decade after Cairn’s announcement of adaptive mutation, further work in molecular genetics of bacteria imploded the Lamarckian theory that had been proposed. In order to respond to the stress of a nutrient poor environment, bacteria down-regulate their gene repair enzymes allowing a higher rate of mutation and a higher chance of a population that can overcome the challenge. In stress-enhanced bacteria, mutation is a regulated phenomenon in which the rate of mutation transiently increases several orders higher than normal, triggered by stress. Similarly, sub-inhibitory levels of antibiotics stress bacteria and increase the rate of mutation, which, in turn, selects for resistance. This is the result of selective advantage of induction of an error prone DNA polymerase, and illustrates the power of natural selection. The discovery of selective mutations made natural selection not just attractive as an explanation, but unavoidable, while highlighting the role of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is a mechanism of gene control that can promote or repress the expression of genes without altering the genetic coding of an organism (Feinberg, 2008). In other words, epigenetics represents a system by which the gene expression of an individual can be altered without altering their genome’s sequence. The key to this success has always been the uniquely human ability to adapt quickly and epigenetics has played a role in this capacity to adapt. While cultural adaptations to environments, such as changes in clothing or ritualistic behavior, are the most visual signs of this adaptability, no less important are the more subtle genetic and epigenetic changes that a population undergoes as they live in an area for generations. For example, a population that has lived in an arid environment will carry many genetic mutations that make them more suitable to a dry climate. This population will however still carry many of the genetic mutations that made them suited to their old environment until selection pressure allows new mutations to compensate for these genetic relics.
In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit with the business model. With the discovery of epigenetics, this thinking has changed. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The reactive oxygen radicals can modify, or turn off and on, genes that effect events further downstream. This can cause chronic diseases within a few decades. The great recession has created a perfect storm for poor health. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. How we develop mentally and physically have a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options.
The Enlightenment writers were concerned about a system based on birth privileges, inequality and exploitation. A cultural process gave rise to the inequalities, Rousseau noted, it will take a change in cultural process to reverse the harmful inequalities. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. Early studies show an association between epigenetic marks (in the human genome) and socio-economic status. For example, it is known that maternal nutrition could have a dramatic impact on childhood physical and neural development. Epigenetic risk is not merely a medical risk, but implicates the fundamental principles of fairness and justice underlying the present social contract. For Hayek (circa 1988), the term “cultural evolution” refers to the evolution of a tradition of learnt rules, norms, ethical precepts, and practices, “especially those dealing with inherited property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy”. Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution can now be relegated to the dustbin of history.
1 The Current Evidence for Hayek’s Cultural Group Selection Theory (30 Dec 2010) https://mises.org/library/current-evidence-hayek%E2%80%99s-cultural-group-selection-theory