Norbert Elias discusses an interesting case of cultural evolution in his opus magnum, The Civilizing Process. As we know, during the Middle Ages Europeans did not use forks. During meals they simply grabbed greasy pieces of meat from the serving dish with their fingers (or, at best, speared them with belt knives). The first known use of the fork in Western Europe was in the eleventh century, when a Venetian doge married a Byzantine princess. During meals she “lifted food to her mouth by means of little golden forks with two prongs. This gave rise in Venice to a dreadful scandal. This novelty was regarded as so excessive sign of refinement that the dogaressa [doge’s wife] was severely rebuked by ecclesiastics who called down divine wrath onto her. Shortly afterward she was afflicted by a repulsive illness and St. Bonaventure did not hesitate to declare that this was a punishment of God.”
Despite such resistance from the conservatives (and even divine wrath!), the use of the fork apparently stuck in Italy. But not in France. The use of fork spread to France only in late sixteenth century. It was introduced to the royal court by the last Valois king, Henry III, who brought this practice from Venice. Again, this cultural import had to overcome a lot of resistance, and Henry’s courtiers were made fun of for their ‘affected’ way of eating. In the next, seventeenth, century eating with a fork was still a practice entirely restricted to the upper classes. It took a long time for it to diffuse out through the rest of the population.
This is an interesting story in many ways. First, it is remarkable that the fork, an extremely simple implement, was not independently invented in Western Europe, but had to diffuse into it from outside. Second, equally remarkable is how long the diffusion process took – from the initial appearance in Venice in the eleventh century to broad adoption in France (not the most benighted European country) during the eighteenth century. Third, note how the first adopters of this innovation were among the social elites, and that diffusion into the broader segments of the population was clearly an example of what Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd call “biased cultural transmission.” In this case, the ‘bias’ was due to the preferential copying of what high-prestige individuals do.
Most importantly, this example illustrates the inertial nature of culture. When I sit down to a meal, I automatically reach for a fork. Why? Because my parents trained me to do it, because everybody around me uses forks, and because forks are automatically supplied as eating utensils – at home, in a restaurant, at a friend’s dinner party. We tend to forget that alternatives exist (e.g., using our fingers or chopsticks; in fact, restaurants in Japan automatically supply chopsticks, rather than forks, to a great distress of my wife). The use of forks becomes habitual, and this habit is readily transmitted to the next generation.
Culture is inertial. The simplest explanation for why we use forks is because the parent generation used them. Similarly, the simplest explanation for why we wear pants is because the previous generation wore them. Naturally, culture changes – back in the tenth century the Europeans grabbed food with their hands, and back during the Antiquity the civilized Europeans (the Greeks and Romans) wore tunics. Culture is both inertial, and capable of change. This is what Darwin called “descent with modification.” Cultural evolution is a Darwinian process, as was argued by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd in the 1970s and 80s (and by Lumsden and Wilson and Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman).
Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd: the founding fathers of the new field of cultural evolution (photo by the author).
The cultural evolution research program has at least two alternatives. One is what has been called the ‘standard social science model,’ which basically says that anything goes as far as culture is concerned. The second alternative is evolutionary psychology, which in its most extreme forms denies any role of culture. Or as Helena Cronin puts it, “there’s no cultural evolution.”
What I like about the research program of Boyd and Richerson is that it offers us a productive way to investigate both the cases when culture is very inertial (conservative) and when it changes rapidly. Actually, the Boyd/Richerson approach amounts to no less than a Newtonian revolution in the study of human history.
Newton’s First Law (or the law of inertia) stated that “every object continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon it.” Similarly, in cultural evolution we assume that culture is persistent (inertial) – unless there are forces acting to change it.
Both in Newtonian physics and in cultural evolution, the main action is with understanding the forces that act on physical bodies, or effect cultural change. Boyd and Richerson described several such forces – cultural mutation and drift, guided variation and biased transmission, and natural selection. I don’t want to go into great details here, but just to give you the flavor, let’s illustrate some of these forces with the cultural evolution of pants.
The invention of pants was probably a result of trial-and-error tinkering (cultural mutation) combined with some inspired thinking (guided variation). Natural selection came into play because those people who did not learn how to use horses in warfare (and, thus, had to wear pants when riding horses) were defeated by groups who did learn how to use cavalry effectively. Finally, when the warrior class started wearing pants, the rest of the population imitated them, because pants became associated with high status/prestige, and this is what ‘biased transmission’ is all about.
Finally, it’s important to remember that forces of cultural evolution can work either for change, or for stasis. When the elites adopt wearing pants, or eating with a fork, the practice spreads to the rest of the population via biased (prestige-based) transmission. But remember how the initial spread of pants into both the Mediterranean world and China was met with enormous resistance, because wearing pants was associated with low-status barbarians.