Cultural evolution and neoliberalism

| 4th June 2019
Beehive baby protest
Evolutionary psychology demonstrates an innate preference for social learning and 'niche construction' that can help us understand the drive towards direct action and citizen assemblies.


Recent trends in our understanding of cultural evolution can help to apprehend the interconnected events that have given rise to young people's radical responses to climate breakdown. 

Taking an evolutionary perspective can help to explore entrenched personal and political behaviours that have tended to cause a policy-making stalemate. 

We have learned to change our environment to ‘construct our niche’, to make our lives more efficient and comfortable. During this most recent evolutionary phase, many civilisations have grown and declined, and we have learned from this to develop a more successful global economy. 

Social learning 

Taking the very long term view, human evolution - separate from other primates - started about six million years ago, during which time we have evolved through four identifiable species types, and through phases of physical, social and then cultural  adaptation. 

In the last two decades our understanding of how this evolutionary trajectory has unfolded has also progressed greatly. ‘Darwinian’ and genetic explanations have become augmented with increasing research into many epigenetic factors: adaptations for high sociality in densely populated land for instance.

Particularly since the evolution of our species as homo sapiens, we have become the most social of mammal species, developing  language, tool-use, social emotions (pride, guilt shame etc) and social learning as adaptations that have enabled us to live in highly dense levels of population and succeed in surviving in virtually every part of the world.

As evolutionary psychology has shown over decades, much of our current behaviour is still driven by these adaptations - for instance our deep sense of identity with important ‘in’ groups, which is often fuelled and enhanced by defining ourselves as different to other ‘out’ groups, in terms of values, morals etc.

Our innate preference for social learning from others similar to us, has led to us to tend to polarise our political views in ways that influence our behaviour in ways that often seem to contradict common sense, eg: around climate change. 

Niche construction 

Humans have also developed a deep instinct for ‘niche construction’, a relatively new term in evolutionary studies which is key to understanding our present predicament.

In its most basic form, even simple organisms change their environment to better ensure their survival in face of threats: Rhodedendrons change the acidity of the local soil to deter other young plants competing for their space; beavers build complex dams and floating shelters.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have done this in increasingly sophisticated and complex ways, to the point where we now almost instinctively look to change our environment to suit our selves, and are individually dependent on doing so for our general well being.

Through this we have overcome most of the pressures that natural selection operates through: diseases and parasites through medicines and sanitation, food and resource scarcity through agriculture, industry and trade, climate and weather through robust housing, shelter and transport infrastructure.

At an individual level we see nice construction in ‘nesting instinct’ that we have towards our home environments. 

Neoliberalism and financialization 

Looking now at this more recent phase of cultural evolution in the West, we accelerated our niche construction into rapid economic development through metallurgic technologies (engineering) and harnessing fossil fuel energy to increase work efficiency during the industrial revolution.

This has led us to living in highly dense urban population centres, which has also had several deep and lasting effects: we have steadily developed increasingly high expectations of problem solving through more technology, and this has, over time, usually worked and we are increasingly motivated to conform to social norms of behaviour that allow us to live in very close proximity to each other, including lessened aggression and greater influence by prestigious individuals (leaders, celebrities etc). 

In addition to this, western societies have become more fragmented as they have moved more towards a nuclear family system and away from extended families and collectivist community living values.

Even more recently those in the west have evolved a different trajectory again.

Neoliberal ideology  and financialization gained traction as the main economic models, as those in the West began to perceive that their leadership and hegemony in industrial production was being overtaken by the Asian economies. 

Shifting expectations

In parallel to this, western societies also developed  more postmodern cultural values, based more on individualism and personal enhancement than previous more collectivist values.

The neoliberal economic argument for free unfettered trade in both goods and capital movement, and the postmodern ideology of freeing people from a sense of place and territorial inheritance, are far more detached and abstract ideologies than earlier value systems.

Over the last 40 years or so, neoliberalism has produced an expectation that certain members of global society can go wherever they like and buy whatever they want, a sort of detached mentality that rejects the previously perceived need for regulation and control in the national or community interest.

Thus the value of many items and services in the West have become detached from their actual value in terms of production costs.

Detaching economic behaviour from long-held values of exchange based on local resources and specialisms practiced over hundreds of thousands of years, has brought about a huge surge of global economic activity.

This has lifted billions of people out of absolute poverty, and increasingly brought them into the mainstream economy, most noticeably India and China.

Uncontrolled escalation

Neoliberalism has, however, also produced several deleterious effects: soaring economic and health inequalities and spiralling mental health issues, property prices that reflect these huge inequalities, and lack of career progression opportunities for young people.

It has also bolstered an escalating reaction to regulation and control by those who have most profited from these changes of values, eg: tax avoidance on an industrial scale, complete freedom being taken by the internet giants to use our data as they please and increase advertising to maintain and drive up sales.

This increased economic activity over the last 40 years has also produced an uncontrolled escalation of emissions of greenhouse gasses from the burning of oil, gas and coal that have fuelled it, stepping up the rate of climate change exponentially.

It is not surprising that young people feel like rebelling against a system that feels to them both fatalistic and unreasonably unfair - having been faced with the triple impacts of rising property values making mortgages and rents increasingly onerous, a lack of reliable and progressive employment prospects, and an outlook of a world with diminishing wildlife, natural resources and stable climate. 

They could also be seen as reacting against the older adults around them who act as if ‘business as usual’ is the best way forward, based on the short sighted assumption that the current version of trading is the only way capitalism can run.

Communal control 

Taking the longer-term evolutionary perspective, it is more reasonable to assume that the recent large scale experiment of neoliberal ideology in economics is coming to an end, and some more sustainable and equitable way of trading will need to evolve.

This would suggest greater emphasis being placed on decisions for the common good of all, including  more regulation of fossil fuels and plastics. 

Many young people feel deeply that there  needs to be a move towards more democratic structures in society, such as Citizens’ assemblies, with  greater emphasis being placed on decisions for the common good of all sections of the population of each nation, including them.

Such an intervention could also bring about more communal control and regulation of fossil fuel use, plastics, waste systems and food production, as attempts to get people to voluntarily live more frugally has not succeeded in mitigating climate change. 

This Author 

Steve Heigham is an evolutionary psychologist, lecturer in counselling and practicing psychotherapist. He is also an activist in Extinction Rebellion.

Image: Terry Matthews


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