Cultural Evolution and Conservative Thought

“But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as a historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. We might even say that he is seeing things in a nightmare.” — G.K Chesterton, The Thing, 1929

In a 2016 episode of his Conversations with Tyler podcast series, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen conducted an extended interview with Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich. The exchange is well-worth listening to — or reading — in full, but there was a particular moment during a discussion of Henrich’s research that is worth highlighting:

Cowen: I look at your research. You have papers. We learn better from teachers who are like us in some way, maybe slightly senior, but they’re similar in terms of their groups. Religion is something that’s very prosocial. There’s a kind of wisdom in intuitions about repugnance. Not always, but often. There’s a wisdom to these carried intuitions.

There’s a high value to cultural evolution. War in some cases can foster cooperation, especially over the longer haul. Biology really matters, and the West is quite distinctive in terms of what we do and how we think and the culture we’ve developed.

I’m not trying to ask personally are your views conservative. But in some temperamental sense, if I can just whisper this, do you ever feel even here, does it make you conservative believing all these things?

Henrich: I just follow the trail where it goes. I don’t think of these things as conservative ideas although —

Cowen: I don’t mean conservative in the sense of modern political parties, but in the sense of the broad sweep of human history there are conservative thinkers, such as Edmund Burke or Adam Smith.

You could argue today, right now, the Democratic Party is in some ways more conservative than the Republican Party. Do you think of yourself fundamentally as a conservative thinker in that sense?

Henrich: I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve really thought about that question. One of the things I think thinking about cultural evolution and the scaling up of human societies and the adaptive nature of culture means is that when you see a practice you’re thinking about how could that have emerged, why would it have spread?

Henrich then goes on to describe his research on monogamy, which proposes that normative monogamy has important benefits for society. Henrich and his colleagues argue that, “in suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses.”

As Cowen alluded to, much of Henrich’s work — and indeed the work of numerous other anthropologists working within the framework of cultural evolution — has surprising concordance with a number of ideas found in the tradition of conservative political philosophy.

In a highly-cited paper from 2005, Henrich and a team of 16 other social scientists, mostly consisting of anthropologists, found that, among individuals across 15 small-scale societies, greater market integration was associated with more generous offers while playing experimental games. They speculate that “extensive market interactions may accustom individuals to the idea that strangers can be trusted (i.e., expected to cooperate).”

While their methods and results were novel, the idea that exposure to markets is associated with greater prosociality is nothing new. In Book 20 of his work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), the French political philosopher Montesquieu wrote that, “Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.” Montesquieu further adds, “Let us not be astonished, then, if our manners are now less savage than formerly. Commerce has everywhere diffused a knowledge of the manners of all nations: these are compared one with another, and from this comparison arise the greatest advantages.”

In his work Empire of Liberty (2009), historian Gordon S. Wood made a similar point about attitudes towards markets in late 18th century America, writing that, “With [the] spread of politeness and civility, classical virtue had gradually become domesticated. Mingling in drawing rooms, clubs, and coffeehouses created friendship and sympathy and helped to hold society together. Some even thought that commercial exchanges and the trust and credit they bred contributed to this new conception of virtue.”

Beyond cultural evolutionary work illustrating the prosocial effects of monogamy and markets, we find in this body of research a similar correspondence to conservative thought when it comes to the historical benefits of religious systems.

In their paper on“The Evolution of Religion,” Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich write that, “Converging lines of field and experimental evidence suggest that cultural evolution, building on certain innate cognitive foundations, has favored the emergence of beliefs in powerful moralizing deities concerned with the prosocial behavior of individuals beyond kin — and reciprocity — based networks.”

Many anthropologists have argued that the development of religions consisting of what are sometimes referred to “Big Gods,” or “Moralizing High Gods,” allowed for the development of larger societies, and aided in promoting cooperation among unrelated individuals. An all-powerful, all-seeing God, who demands strong moral commitments from his followers, impels cooperation with the threat of supernatural punishment or the promise of unearthly reward.

The evolution of powerful Big Gods helped reduce the requirements for human enforcement of pro-social norms. In small-scale societies, pro-social behavior can be maintained through intimate personal relationships, reciprocity, and punishment or ostracism of those known to free-ride, but at larger social scales, promoting consistent cooperation between complete strangers is aided by important social norms and institutions stemming from shared religious ideologies and economic markets.

In Henrich’s book, The Secret of Our Success (2016), he provides a description of the importance of the phenomenon of cumulative cultural evolution for human societies, writing that,

…our brains have genetically adapted to a world in which information crucial to our survival was embedded implicitly in a vast body of knowledge that we inherit culturally from previous generations. This information comes buried in daily cooking routines (manioc), taboos, divination rituals, local tastes (chili peppers), mental models, and tool-manufacturing scripts (arrow shafts). These practices and beliefs are often (implicitly) MUCH smarter than we are, as neither individuals nor groups could figure them out in one lifetime… this is also true of some institutions, religious beliefs, rituals, and medical practices (Henrich, 112).

Henrich’s remarks here almost perfectly mirror conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s arguments on the importance of tradition in his work How To Be A Conservative (2014), published two years before Henrich’s book. Scruton argues that,

The important social traditions are not just arbitrary customs, which might or might not have survived into the modern world. They are forms of knowledge. They contain the residues of many trials and errors, as people attempt to adjust their conduct to the conduct of others. To put it in the language of game theory, they are the discovered solutions to problems of coordination, emerging over time. They exist because they provide necessary information, without which a society may not be able to reproductive itself. Destroy them heedlessly and you remove the guarantee offered by one generation to the next (Scruton, 25).

While Henrich’s work follows the cultural evolution research paradigm that began largely with the publication of social scientists Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson’s foundational work Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985), Scruton cites earlier conservative thinkers such as 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke.

The convergence here is interesting because you have two largely independent projects: one rooted in centuries of political philosophy, and the other in decades worth of comparatively obscure academic work, that have reached similar conclusions.

The primary intersection between the two camps is economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek’s work is discussed extensively by Scruton, and has been (briefly) cited in both Boyd and Richerson’s, and Henrich’s work.

In his essay “The Three Sources of Human Values” (1978), referenced by Boyd and Richerson, Hayek argues that, “since we owe the order of our society to a tradition of rules which we only imperfectly understand, all progress must be based on tradition. We must build on tradition and can only tinker with its products.” In his book The Fatal Conceit (1988), Hayek speaks even more directly in the language of cultural evolution, expanding on how norms and traditions develop and pile on top of each other to aid in the coordination of individuals within society, writing, “What are chiefly responsible for having generated this extraordinary order, and the existence of mankind in its present size and structure, are the rules of human conduct that gradually evolved (especially those dealing with several property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy).” Hayek notes that, “These rules are handed on by tradition, teaching and imitation, rather than by instinct, and largely consist of prohibitions (‘shalt not’s’) that designate adjustable domains for individual decisions.

There are, however, two main differences between cultural evolutionary research and this tradition of conservative thought. The first is that in political philosophy you tend to see more normative claims about the way the world should be, while cultural evolutionary work makes descriptive claims about the way the world is. As Henrich said in his discussion with Tyler Cowen, “I just follow the trail where it goes.” Research in cultural evolution is subject to falsification: results are provisional and can be revised and updated over time. Whether markets increase prosociality, or monogamy reduces violence, are empirical questions that need to be tested and re-tested. Even if the patterns seem well-established, they should not be accepted as a matter of doctrine, in contrast to a political philosophy.

The second difference is that research in cultural evolution also points to how social traditions can be suboptimal or maladaptive. As cumulative cultural evolution is the result of social learning, this means that people have to be fairly credulous to reap the benefits of the body of knowledge they inherit. Sometimes people will learn, and repeat, erroneous ideas or harmful traditions, which can be perpetuated for extended periods of time, even as these traditions are widely disliked or fail to function productively.

In his essay “Cannibals, Tricksters, and Witches,” anthropologist Fitz John Porter Poole described rituals involving cannibalism among the Bumin-Kuskusmin of New Guinea. Poole wrote that, despite following their long-standing traditions, “Many Bimin-Kuskusmin men and women whom I interviewed and who admitted to socially proper cannibalistic practices acknowledge considerable ambivalence, horror, and disgust at their own acts.” Here we see an example of social institutions voluntarily maintained, even as they are despised by many of the of the population.

Despite this, when intergroup competition is strong, we still expect to see the development of more functional social institutions. As Henrich writes in The Secret of Our Success, intergroup conflict “increasingly favored social norms that fostered success in this competition, which would have commonly included norms that increase group size, solidarity, social interconnectivity, cooperation, economic production, internal harmony, and risk sharing, among many other domains.”

Regardless of the differences, the significant correspondence between conservative political philosophy and research in cultural evolution has been surprisingly under-discussed (though, political scientist Larry Arnhart’s work is a notable exception, and economics blogger Pseudoerasmus briefly mentions the connection in his excellent overview of cultural evolution). Perhaps it is a good thing: maybe keeping this body of research relatively independent from any political implications allows the work to progress in a more rigorous and dispassionate fashion, reducing the production of ideologically motivated work.

On the other hand, this is in stark contrast to the perspective of many individuals in the field of cultural anthropology (which is largely distinct from the evolutionary focused side of anthropology that works within the framework of cultural evolution). The Twitter account of the journal Cultural Anthropology recently tweeted out:

They also tweeted:

This is the kind of call to action you’d expect from a field that is relatively homogenous in terms of political ideology. Indeed, it was recently revealed that in the Anthropology departments at fifty-one of the sixty-six top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News 2017 report, there is not a single registered Republican, despite there being dozens of registered Democrats. If cultural anthropologists thought there were many secret Trump supporters in their midst, I doubt you’d see this call for them to engage in more political activism.

While I think the link to conservative philosophy within cultural evolution has been, for the most part, unfortunately neglected as an empirical matter, I do find the seeming non-politicization of the field quite admirable. Many anthropologists on the cultural side are quite open about their ideological convictions, but if you read the work or browse the Twitter accounts of top researchers in cultural evolution like Henrich or Richard McEleath, it’s difficult to discern any sort of political intentions.

Although, if you believe, as Joseph Henrich does, that “Cultural evolution is smarter than we are,” perhaps this lack of politicization represents a shrewd – and quite fitting –  recognition of the limits of individual understanding of complex institutions.


  1. This is why there is a replication crisis in the humanities. Politically biased studies endorse the authors’ political views. It’s not science, it’s left-wing political activism.

  2. “Academics who are not politically engaged through their work are tacitly endorsing the status quo. — Cultural Anthropology (@culanth) May 3, 2018”

    I am continually amazed that the people who say things like this do not see the obvious problem. It’s not about the morality of truth v. resistance. It’s a simple matter of practicality. If people know in advance what you are going to conclude, why should they bother to listen to you? It would be like reading a press release — a very badly written one. When someone issues a press release, you know what it’s going to say before you read it. Do you believe it? Do you care enough to even read it? I thought as much.

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