Evolutionary Perspective

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

The notion of a needed new human maturity—especially when filled out with more theoretical distinctions—is unusual as much for the specifically developmental/evolutionary kind of idea it reflects as for its particular conclusions. Culturally mature decision-making requires not just new ideas, but new kinds of ideas. Here we see one way this applies to the concept of Cultural Maturity itself. Just how it does has critical implications.

The new capacities that a healthy, and perhaps even survivable, human future will require can seem really not humanly possible. When I speak, people who make this assertion often justify it with an evolutionary argument. They might say, for example, “We’ve evolved to be warlike and that will never change.” In making this argument people miss that evolution has two meanings. There is biological evolution, and on that front we are unlikely to see much that will help us, certainly anytime soon. But there is also cultural evolution: the ways social systems grow and evolve over time. If the concept of Cultural Maturity accurate, cultural evolution should produce significant change in times ahead, much with real and important promise.

The whole notion that culture might evolve, and in understandable ways, is suspect in some circles. But the fact of such change—and change of a deep sort—becomes pretty self-evident with close examination.

The concept of Cultural Maturity draws on a particular sort of evolutionary perspective. Just how it is different is key to the concept of Cultural Maturity making sense and providing useful guidance. It is particular, first, in where it gives its attention. Conventionally, if people have thought of culture evolving at all, they’ve mapped human progress in ways that related specifically to invention—a time of hunter-gatherers, an age of agriculture, a modern industrial age. With the concept of Cultural Maturity, our interest lies more specifically with changes in how we humans think and behave. This includes changes throughout our history, and in particular, further changes we see today.

And even within views that give primary attention to changes at the level of understanding, the perspective we will apply is particular. As we will see, it is unique with regard to how it frames the mechanisms of change over time. It is also new in how it frames current changes, the particular way it sees them not just as a next chapter in culture’s story but one of specific and pivotal significance. This newness is one of the reasons I’ve made this introductory chapter as detailed as I have. It is important that we avoid confusion.

We glimpse some of how the developmental/evolutionary perspective we will draw on is different from usual ways of thinking—and critically important for our project—in the simplified but useful recognition that most of our stories about what the future will be like fall into one of two broad categories. On one side we find views that basically affirm where we have come to, and which, for the future, assume the continued viability of the trajectory that got us here. These views acknowledge that there will be bumps in the road ahead, at times big ones, but hold that our institutions and our ways of understanding are basically sound. Given time, according to these views, we can count on our amazing capacities for insight and invention to pull us through whatever difficulties we might face.

Contrasting this we find an array of views that see our present condition to be in some way broken. Extreme examples regard it as irretrievably so, perceiving, if not a looming Armageddon, at least a world  “going to hell in a hand-basket.” Most present milder critical interpretations, but all such notions share the idea that in some basic way we have gone astray. Either explicitly or by implication, most call for major kinds of human transformation.

Both positions, certainly in their extremes, but also in more tempered manifestations, have problems. With regard to the first set of views, there is no reason to conclude that new cultural forms—educational, economic, governmental, scientific, and more—do not lie ahead, and every reason to assume that they do. In addition, we confront how few if any of the major challenges ahead can be solved by technological, economic, or policy means alone. We will see how going forward will require not just striving onward, but changes in how we think, and more deeply, in who we are.

With regard to the second set of views, we need to appreciate that most of the conundrums we face today are the result not of going astray, but of our great success as a species. This is the case equally with more in the world challenges, such as climate change, and with concerns that are more obviously about ourselves, such as the need to address moral questions without past one-size-fits-all cultural guideposts. In addition, a close look reveals how views that argue for radical transformation most always miss critical pieces of the puzzle. We will look at how most such notions advocate for idealized outcomes that we could not achieve, and more important, would, with greater understanding, not want to achieve.

Cultural Maturity’s notion of a needed and newly possible collective “growing up” presents a third sort of interpretation, different not just in its conclusions, but also in the kind of idea it represents. It argues that change—fundamental change—is indeed required; needed changes involve not just a significant stretch, but a leap, beyond familiar assumptions. But, at the same time, the idea of a new human maturity makes clear that the needed going forward is not about the correcting of past error (which is not to say the human enterprise has not involved error). And certainly the answers it proposes look very different from idealized or magical solutions. Cultural Maturity’s new narrative presents at once a more “ordinary” picture, and a picture that is more audacious. It is about engaging a now critical—developmentally predicted, but only now within our capabilities—next step in the human endeavor.

This developmental/evolutionary picture has important implications for the question of hope. The simple fact that the idea of a collective “growing up” articulates a practical story of possibility is by itself of no small significance. But that these needed new capacities are together part of needed and now possible developmental changes suggests something more. It implies that the capacities we need if we are to have a stable, healthy, and creative future, may, as potential, be built into us.

If we needed to invent the changes the concept of Cultural Maturity describes from whole cloth—make them happen simply because they obviously need to happen—the argument that optimism is warranted would be hard to make. But if the seeds of the needed new capacities lie in our makeup, the implications become very different. What our time asks of us comes to have less to do with radical invention than with garnering the insight and courage needed to make our inherent potential manifest. If, too, we are not just potentially capable of what the needed new human maturity asks, but already beginning to make it manifest, as we will see is the case, there is more reason to hope. While this developmental explanation does not guarantee our safety or even our survival, it does paint a very different sort of picture, both more ultimately hopeful and more realistic.

Developmental/evolutionary perspective is needed not just to effectively understand our times and conceive of the future, but also if we are to usefully understand our world more generally. For example, effectively addressing terrorism becomes almost impossible without it, as does any at all useful understanding of conflict that involves countries and ethnic groups that reside in different cultural stages. Functioning effectively in a global economy similarly demands it. The important recognition is that if something like what this particular sort of developmental/evolutionary perspective proposes is not correct, it is hard to imagine a sane and vital—or perhaps even survivable—future.