Friday, December 07, 2012

Biological evolution, farming and cultural revolution.

It is important to understand this quotation. Darwin was not opposed to evolution, and indeed saw it as a process in which new species arose to replace former ones because they were better adapted to survive in a changing world.

Think of a species as a means for its genes to survive. In that model, evolution is a process by which a collaboration of genes survives by deleting some of its members and replacing them with others so that the new collaboration is more successful than the old.

Many people want cultures to survive. If we think of a culture as a collaboration of memes, perhaps cultures should be seen as evolving by deleting some of its memes and replacing them with others so that the new cultural collaboration of memes is more successful than the old.

The evolution of species has generally been unplanned, except in the rare circumstances of human selection. Farmers over thousands of years have conducted selective breeding to produce new varieties that better meet human needs. In some cases they have produced new species through that process rather than just varieties of existing species.

Cultural evolution too is often unplanned. However, there are examples in which people have thoughtfully guided their own evolution.

The Japanese seem to have been exceptionally successful in guiding their culture's evolution to eliminate memes that were unproductive, to adopt new memes that would be more productive, and to retain still other (highly valued) memes. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate Japanese gave up the production of firearms and ammunition, which had been a part of Japanese culture since the 13th century and widely used in the warring states period, but also closed Japan's borders to protect Japanese culture from other foreign insertions. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japanese rapidly adopted military and industrial technology from the west, while reverting to political systems likened to earlier imperial models. After World War II, Japanese deliberately moved away from the militarism that had marked previous decades while embracing democratic governance. It rapidly developed modern automotive and electronics industries, while explicitly preserving traditional practices from Kabuki to Sumo.

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