Book Review: Cultural Evolution

More than 45 years ago, I argued in The Silent Revolution that "A transformation may be taking place in the political culture of advanced industrial societies. This transformation seems to be altering the basic value priorities of given generations as a result of changing conditions influencing their basic socialization."

— Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Evolution

How have human values and psychology changed over the history of homo sapiens? Joseph Henrich's The WEIRDest People in the World answers this question from 10,000 BCE through the present. But can we zoom in? How have human values changed in the last 40 years? Ronald Inglehart answers this question in his 2018 book, Cultural Evolution.

Both authors tackle an often neglected question—how have our minds created institutions, and how have those minds changed over time? This is what Henrich calls the "dark matter of history":

The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history.

We often think about the world in terms of the manifestations of psychologies instead of the psychologies themselves.

I. How have society's values changed in the last 40 years?

Ronald Ingelhart has spent his entire career exploring this question. He has helped lead the World Values Survey (WVS), which has interviewed hundreds of thousands of people across the globe in the past few decades. It's a truly astonishing undertaking.

What have we learned about our values?

First, it's worth noting that values are complex. The WVS asks all kinds of questions, from: "Do you still live with your parents?" to "How important is religion?" In order to more easily understand the data, we can reduce the answers to two dimensions: Survival vs. Self-Expression Values and Traditional vs. Secular-Rational Values. We can then map all countries onto those two dimensions. This is called the Inglehart-Welzel map:

We can find any country on the map. For example, the United States scores pretty highly on self-expression (around x=1.0) is balanced between traditional religious values and new secular values (y=1.0). As a reminder, these values are expressed in individual members of the population:

Surivalists outnumber Self-Expressionists in Pakistan by a ratio of 55 to 1, and in Russia by a ratio of 28 to 1; but in the USA Self-Expressionists outnumber Suvivalists by 2 to 1, and in Sweden by 5 to 1.

But isn't this map just a representation of income or education? Poor, uneducated African countries in the bottom left and rich, educated European countries in the top right. While this is true to some extent, there's still a sizable chunk of cross-country variation. In fact, the difference between countries is actually much greater than the difference within a country. Inglehart writes:

One can imagine a world in which everyone with a university-level education had modern values, placing them near the upper-right-hand corner of the map – while everyone with little or no education clustered near the lower-left-hand corner of the map. We would be living in a global village where nationality was unimportant.
Perhaps some day the world will look like that, but the reality today is quite different. Although individual Swedes or Nigerians can fall anywhere on the map, there is surprisingly little overlap between the prevailing orientations of large groups from one country and their peers in other countries. The cross-national cultural differences are so large that they dwarf the differences within given societies. The ellipse in the lower-right-hand corner of Figure 3.3 [below] shows the size of the mean standard deviation on each dimension within given countries. It occupies a tiny fraction of the map. Two-thirds of the average country’s respondents fall within one standard deviation of their country’s mean score on both dimensions and 95 percent fall within two standard deviations.

So we know that individual countries are relatively homogenous at a given point in time. But what happens to values across time?

Roughly speaking, values have tended to move up and to the right. From the WVS website:

Following an increase in standards of living, and a transit from development country via industrialization to post-industrial knowledge society, a country tends to move diagonally in the direction from lower-left corner (poor) to upper-right corner (rich), indicating a transit in both dimensions.

You can see this as a time-lapse in the video below:

What is the mechanism for the change in values? We'll look at two parts of Inglehart's model:

II. Values change when living people change their minds, or when new generations replace old ones.

III. Values change institutions

Let's look at each.

II. Values change when living people change their minds, or when new generations replace old ones

There are two ways that humanity's values can change in the aggregate: when living people change their minds or when new generations replace old ones. As an example, why do we accept gay marriage now? Is it because our uncle now accepts "those people" or because he died and your university student cousin now votes in his place? That's the difference between what Inglehart calls "socialized change" vs. "intergenerational replacement".

The Economist graphic below shows which topics changed because of "socialized change" (people changing their views) vs. "intergenerational replacement" (changing demography).

As you can tell, views on gay marriage changed during a generation, while views of communist books changed across generations.

Inglehart visualizes this by surveying a variety of birth cohorts decades apart. For example, in the graph below, Inglehart asked the question: "How important is God in your life?" A variety of birth cohorts answered this question in 1981 and again in 2009.

As you can see, the importance of god decreases across cohorts. In the 1981 survey (black line), the 1897 cohort gave a 7.5/10, while the 1957 cohort only gave a 5.5/10.

But did the views within a cohort change between 1981 and 2009? Not really. As you can see, the 1957 cohort gave a 5.5/10 when surveyed in 1981 and again a 5.5/10 in 2009.

This means that views on the importance of god are almost entirely the result of intergenerational replacement rather than socialized change. This is depicted in the figure on the right. In 1981, the mean score was 6.5/10. In 2009, it was 5.75/10, a change of -0.72. And in fact, all of that change came from population replacement. We can attribute -0.77 of change to population replacement and actually a small increase (of +0.05) within a cohort.

In other words, people care more about God as they get older, but younger generations care less about God overall.

This survey is for 14 high-income countries. And yeah, I couldn't find a less blurry image :(

There's an inherent lag here. Our values are determined during childhood and then they "trickle into" society as we grow into adults with more responsibility and power. Inglehart writes:

One’s basic values largely reflect the conditions that prevailed during one’s preadult years, and these values change mainly through intergenerational population replacement.
The strongest predictor of a society’s level of support for new values will not be its current levels of per capita GDP, life expectancy and infant mortality, but levels that prevailed several decades ago.

As an alternative example, we can see how the tolerance of individual choice (e.g. gay marriage) changed. As you can see below, roughly 2/3rds of this change happened due to socialization and 1/3rd due to population replacement.

So we know that different values have different "change dynamics" over time. But why? Why is religion sticky but gay marriage is not?

Inglehart claims that within generation change comes from "conformist pressures". When the majority thought that gay marriage was bad, everyone else did too (Obama, Clinton, etc.). But once the majority hit the 51% tipping points, everyone else supported gay marriage too.

I think this explanation holds some weight. But I'm not entirely convinced it's the full story. I have some hypotheses, but I'd love to learn more about the research here.

III. Values change institutions

When we think about values changing over time, the other crucial idea to consider is how institutions and values co-evolve. This is the idea of Systemic Evolution, that our inner biological world is constantly co-evolving with our outer social world:

In fact, these different categories need to fit with each other in Biological-Cultural Fit:

Our culture builds on our biology. Inglehart gives this example:

Self-expression values are so robust because cross-national differences reflect genetic variation – which in turn is rooted in different levels of historic vulnerability to disease and starvation. Examining the impact of biological factors on culture, Chiao and Blizinsky find linkages between genetic factors and collectivist attitudes, arguing that cultural values have evolved, adapting to the social and physical environments under which genetic selection operates. The evidence suggests that certain populations evolved in environments that were relatively vulnerable to disease, giving a survival advantage to genetic variations linked with avoidance of strangers and strict conformity to social taboos.

In addition to fitting with our biology, our value need to fit with our institutions. As a specific example, Inglehart explores the question—did self-expression values lead to democracy or vice versa? Inglehart writes:

The causal flow seems to move  from Self-expression values to democracy. Democratic institutions do not need to be in place for Self-expression values to emerge. In the years preceding the massive global wave of democratization that occurred around 1990, Self-expression values had emerged through a gradual process of intergenerational value change, not only in Western democracies but also in many authoritarian societies. Accordingly, once the threat of Soviet military intervention was withdrawn, countries with high levels of Self-expression values moved swiftly toward democracy.

We can see this represented in the brilliant graph below. It's a bit complicated, so let me what you through it.

The graph shows how self-expression values led to democracy across a variety of countries. On the x-axis, we have the amount of demand for democracy in the early 1980s. This is calculated as [self-expression values] minus the [level of democracy] in that country. For example, Slovakia is on the far left. This means that Slovakians had a lot of self-expression values in the 1980s, but didn't have much democracy (because they were still in the USSR). On the y-axis, we have the change in the level of democracy from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. For example, Slovakia is near the top—it didn't have much democracy in the early 1980s, but had a lot more democracy in the late 1990s after the USSR fell.

From this graph, we can see how an unmet demand for democracy (self-expression values) led to more democracy (all the countries in the top right). And we can also see the reverse—how an excess supply of democracy (not as many self-expression values) led to a decrease in democracy (the countries in the bottom left).

The crucial idea in this graph is that our values determine our institutions. If we want more democracy in the world, we achieve that by spreading self-expression values, not by "inserting" democracies into places that aren't ready for them. They won't take and there'll be an "immune" response. (See Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.)

We can apply this to the modern day rise of authoritarianism, and what Inglehart calls the "Authoritarian Reflex":

People’s values and behavior are shaped by the degree to which survival is secure. For most of the time since humans first appeared, survival has been precarious. This dominated people’s life strategies. Population rose to meet the food supply, and most people lived just above the starvation level. When survival is insecure, people tend to close ranks behind a strong leader, forming a united front against outsiders – a strategy that can be called the Authoritarian Reflex.
High levels of existential security are conducive to a more tolerant, open outlook – but conversely, declining existential security triggers an Authoritarian Reflex that brings support for strong leaders, strong in-group solidarity, rigid conformity to group norms and rejection of outsiders.

As incomes stagnate, technology accelerates, pandemics spread, and the climate crisis deepens, our Authoritarian Reflex will continue to be triggered. Uncertainty is scary.

Long term, we need to become comfortable with trusting a decentralized networked response instead of an authoritarian one. Hopefully we'll learn that muscle.

"Each age gets the thought it needs." — Ian Morris

Moving away from democracy vs. authoritarianism, we can see how this idea of supply and demand can be seen in religion/meaning as well. We can see this in the fall of the USSR. Inglehart writes:

By far the largest gains in religiosity occurred in the ex-communist world, where religion and nationalism moved in to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of a communist belief system that once gave a sense of meaning and purpose to millions of people.

We can see this in the time-series data below from 1981-2014:

Finally, we can see how values become institutionalized in laws. This is a crucial crucial (crucial) point of the "dark matter" thesis. We have values embedded in our psychology that are hard to see. They're not legible. But eventually those values are manifest in institutions and in the pathetic dot: laws, norms, institutions, and code.

In the graph below, we can see how individual choice values (y-axis) have been institutionalized into laws (x-axis). A country like South Africa doesn't score highly on individual choice, but they have legalized gay marriage. (They have low demand for gay marriage rights, but high supply.) On the other hand, a country like Trinidad scores even higher than South Africa on individual choice, but they have strict laws against gay marriage. (They have high demand for gay marriage right, but low supply.) I'd expect Trinidad to legalize gay marriage soon. [Update: I google it and learned that, in 2018, they overturned the law that made homosexual intercourse illegal! The graph below is from 2012.]

To recap, we looked at:

I. How to put values on a 2D map to track them over time

II. How values change through mindset change or intergenerational replacement

III. How those values "fit" with and get manifest in institutions

Now, we'll look at two final pieces:

IV. Specific value shifts in religion, individualism, and feminization

V. What will happen in the future

Let's do it!

IV. Specific Value Shifts in Religion, Individualism, and Feminization

IV.A Religion

First, a reminder that we will experience the Uneven Distribution of Religion Paradox. We're both going to experience less religion:

The publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving toward more secular orientations during the past fifty years.

And more religion:

Nevertheless, the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before – and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population.

This is simple demographics. The world will grow from 8B to 11B people by 2100, and all of them will be in Africa. Therefore, the percent of Muslims will increase from 24% to 30% of the world population by 2060, roughly equaling Christianity.

As this happens, there is still an opportunity for new individualized religions in the West. Inglehart writes:

Hierarchical authoritarian religious institutions are losing their ability to tell people how to lead their lives but spiritual concerns, broadly defined, are becoming more widespread in postindustrial societies. The shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy brings a shift from the materialist, mechanistic world of the factory, to a world where ideas are central. A new version of religion that allowed space for individual autonomy could provide a growing market for an enterprising religious entrepreneur.

Just as Protestantism sacralized proto-WEIRD psychology with sola scriptura, there's an opportunity to sacralize post-WEIRD psychology with self-expression values. There are protoexamples of this around the world. I'm most familiar with the the Burning Man-adjacent Presentist orientation of meditation, psychedelics, and the like.

As this new spirituality unfolds, we should be aware of the uncanny valley between religion and free choice. Both make us happier, but we want at least one of the two. Inglehart writes:

Cultural change reflects changing strategies to maximize human happiness. In agrarian societies with little or no economic development or social mobility, religion makes people happier by lowering their aspirations in this life, and promising that they will be rewarded in an afterlife.
But modernization brings economic development, democratization and growing social tolerance – which are conducive to happiness because they give people more freedom of choice in how to live their lives.
Although within most countries religious people are happier than less-religious people, the people of modernized but secular countries are happier than the people of less-modernized but highly religious countries.

The new religions that emerge will need to maximize happiness in this life. e.g. Maximizing Presentist sex, gratitude, psychedelic experience, etc.

IV.B Individualism vs. Collectivism

WEIRD countries have seen a rise in individualism for most of the last thousand years. Individualism is deeply tied to voluntary institutions based on impersonal trust, the rise of living standards, and the rise of self-expression values.

But individualism won't get us safely through the 21st century. We'll need more collectivism. Here's how Inglehart differentiates the two:

Individualism is a focus on rights above duties, a concern for oneself and immediate family, an emphasis on personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and basing identity on one’s personal accomplishments.
Collectivism emphasizes conformity to group norms and goals. In collectivist societies, group membership is a central aspect of identity and collectivist goals, such as sacrifice for the common good, are highly valued. Furthermore, collectivism implies that life satisfaction derives from successfully carrying out social roles and obligations, and restraint in emotional expression is valued to ensure in-group harmony.
A major component of rise of Self-expression values is a shift away from deference to all forms of external authority. Submission to authority has high costs: the individual’s personal goals must be subordinated to those of others.

We need to focus more on duties instead of rights.

We need to explore new forms of deference to authority that still fit with self-expression values.

IV.C Feminization

I had never heard the term "feminization" (of society) before Inglehart's book, but I love it. It's the cultural evolution version of The Future is Female (and has been getting increasingly female for centuries).

Inglehart emphasizes the idea of pro-fertility norms—no abortion, no divorce, no homosexuality. These were norms created to increase the amount of children which was necessary given high infant mortality rates and the need for farming help.

I found this categorization super helpful. It's like, of course we were against divorce, abortion, and homosexuality! We wanted more kids and all of those things stopped children.

There are other examples of the feminization of society. In his WEIRD book, Henrich highlights how monogamy led to a biological change—men producing less testosterone. Inglehart gives another example—the declining rates of violence and willingness to fight for one's country. In the graph below, we can see how pro-fertility norms are correlated with willingness to fight for one's country. (Also see how Axis countries are unwilling to fight while Nordic countries are gladly willing. WWI and WWII had a large impact here.)

Now that we've looked at the specifics of religion, individualism, and feminization, let's now turn towards the future.

V. Future

Like with Henrich's book, Inglehart doesn't give too many predictions about the future. He mainly highlights how immigration and tech-induced inequality trigger our Authoritarian Reflex.

I've already written about the future of post-WEIRD psychology here. The 5 points are:

  1. WEIRD psychology will spread to non-WEIRD places.
  2. Our post-WEIRD psychology will look more holistic and collectivist.
  3. Digital technology makes us bimodally both hyper-individualist and network collectivist.
  4. We will self-domesticate the idea of competition itself (not just move it from violence to the market).
  5. We'll see both more polyamory (self-expression values + need for meaning/community as religion goes away) and monogamy (creating a diad as a reverse response to networkism).

Beyond that, I'd add:

  1. Individual countries will become less homogenous through immigration. But overall, we'll see more global homogeneity as other countries move up and to the left, and as the West moves becomes more collectivist.
  2. It will be quite interesting to see how non-WEIRD places deal with a more individualistic society. e.g. China cracked down on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Or how Saudi Arabia gave women the right to drive in 2018, but the women activists who fought for this change are still in prison. Indeed, we see these tensions in the West as well, with Pope Francis' more progressive stances as an example.

I'd say I'm most excited for New WEIRD Collectivism and (as quick as possible) shift towards more progressive values around the world. I hope we can find a way to have "networked resilience" instead of our Authoritarian Reflex in the face of increasing uncertainty and instability. More than anything, I'm curious to learn which values are shiftable within a generation, and which aren't, and how to increase the speed of necessary values shifts.

Roam here: