The Inertia of Culture



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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.

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Juan Alfonso del Busto

I completely agree with this model:

Cultural innovations are more likely to be first adopted by high status individuals as a means to difference them from the low status individuals. Some high status individuals are constantly searching for these kind of status markers, specially if these markers are conspicuous, costly and difficult to imitate by the lower status individuals (first the ones in the same group and, once it has widely spread inside one´s group, by individuals in other lower status groups). These markers evolve like the fitness indicators which embody the handicap principle of sexual selection by mate choice, only that this is more like a social selection.

These cultural mutations or guided variations are firstly individual traits, later they become group traits and finally they become whole-population traits, so they lose their high status meaning: they are not useful as prestige markers any more, and therefore the high status individuals and groups have to search for new ways of differentiation. That is what the fashion industry takes advantage of. This industry induces a very fast cicle of innovation-adoption- general spread- new innovation.

This is why nowadays the high status people prefer to be tanned and skinny rather than snow-white skinned and fat, as it was common among high status people less than a century ago, when low status individuals could seldom afford to be white skinned and fat. Nowadays, in our post-industrial economy, what is difficult and costly is the opposite: being tanned and skinny, so high status people has adopted these traits as markers of status.

Apparently humans have powerful group instincts and emotions (shame, ridiculosness) to be conformist and static, whereas high status individuals seem to have a higher ability to overcome these emotions and become innovators and/or early adopters. And this model has its multilevel point of view, becasuse this is not only true for a whole society but for all the lower levels included in this society. For instance, no matter how low-status is a given urban tribe: it has its share of prestigious individuals more prone to innovate and adopt innovations as prestige markers for its urban tribe. As I said the fashion industry marketing also takes advantage of this lower level trends and accelerates its rate of change.


The initial adoption of an innovation by a high status group is the case of looking selectively at only a part of the process of cultural evolution. The innovation itself may have come from a non-elite source. Consider musical styles evolution: rap is probably the best most recent example, but before it (and in traceable genealogies) came rock, R&B, jazz, blues,ragtime, West African ring shouts and polyrhythms, and deeper back into acoustical pasts.

Contemporary world popular music has a solid taproot in the African/Black Diaspora which occurred broadly because of merchant capitalism and trans-Atlantic slavery.

Low status innovation, in this case, is a richer source of what is by common consensus, a much more fecund tradition of expressive styles. Imagine if Pat Boone and his bland music had dominated the early pop music scene! So boring! I am glad artists like Little Richard and the legion of Black artists and their music won the day.

Juan Alfonso del Busto

That´s right. Innovations usually come from low-status individuals for the simple reason that there are much more low-status individuals than high-status individuals. Besides, many innovations, for instance the ones regarding new technologic advances, don´t have anything to do with prestige markers at all, so we shouldn´t expect the dynamics of adoption above described.

On the other hand any given new technology could be regarded as a prestige marker, specially if it is scarce, conspicuous and costly, which is the case for many new technologies at the beginning.

Rap is an excellent multilevel example of the difussion of an innovation by high-status individuals who belong to a low-status group, that has eventually jumped to high-status groups because some of the high-status individuals in these groups have adopted it. Think of the beginning of Rap culture with its deep social content. Nowadays it has evolved to become a huge platform to merchandise all kinds of prestige markers such as gold jewelry, expensive cars, hi-tech cell phones, and that is holding very different moral values like the importance of advertise one´s success by being surrounded by gorgeus women and by owning luxury cribs, which are symbols of hyper-consumist success.

Gene Anderson

The inertia idea is as old as anthropology, and of course it’s true enough, but for a long time it’s been so well known that the interest has tended to go the other way: how does innovation happen, and why is it so incredibly fast on occasion? Think of the changes wrought by the bow and arrow when it entered the picture, the printing press in Europe (though not in its native East Asia–oddly), the computer…. My favorite is container shipping, which utterly revolutionized the world economy in only a couple of years when it came in back in the 1970s. Meanwhile, I have a rather low opinion of Elias and the civilizing mission. People ate politely–by the standards of the time–before there were forks. The idea that Europeans were slobs and swine in the old days is exaggerated.


“The idea that Europeans were slobs and swine in the old days is exaggerated.”

It does not seem to me that Peter’s post implied that Europeans of the old days were like that. Of course, one can eat with one’s hands quite politely, which actually many do in Asia, Africa, Arab world and so on do. It’s just a matter of customs.

However, I consider using a utensil, be it a spoon, a fork, chopsticks and so on, to be a big improvement in personal hygiene. It’s just not easy to keep your hands perfectly clean. Especially if you don’t have running water in every home and our ancestors didn’t.

Peter Turchin

Gene, I am saying more than the trivial “the culture stays the same, unless it changes.” Again, think about the Newtonian revolution. Saying that “a body is either in motion or it isn’t” is tautological. What Newton and other physicists did is they came up with general principles (‘laws’) that allow us to explain and predict when a body will be at rest and when it will move, and if it moves, how it will do so. This required, first, formulating the null model (what happens when nothing happens). Before Gallileo and Newton the null model was Aristotelean (a body is at rest if nothing happens). Newton, however, used a different starting point: a body is moving in a straight line with constant velocity if nothing happens. In order for it to stay at rest, there has to be a specific force, or forces, that keep it there. So a stone is lying on the ground because there are two forces acting on it: gravitation pulls it down and the ground pushes it up. The stone is at rest because the two forces cancel each other out. Furthermore, the stone is in a stable equilibrium, because if you exert more force to try to move it down, the ground will push back harder. Or if you kick it up, the force of gravition will move it right back. This is a much more sophisticated account than simply making an assumption that the stone at rest is the null model. And the Newtonian approach takes us farther. For example, we can use it to calculate whether a bridge would collapse or not. In an Aristotelean framework, such a calculation does not make sense – why should the bridge collapse if it is already at rest, and there are no new forces acting on it?

When I was an ecologist, I wrote a paper arguing that population dynamics has the same logical structure as Newtonian physics:

I now argue that cultural evolution also has the same logical structure. The first law would be that culture is inertial: it will continue to be transmitted down the generations without change. Then we add a variety of other processes that make it not so: transmission errors, prestige-based biases, frequency-based biases, natural selection, and so on.

Of course, cultural evolution is not as well developed as Newtonian mechanics, where we have good laws for different types of forces (gravitation, Hook’s law, friction, etc). Thus, we need to understand when the evolution of a particular trait will be primarily influenced by prestige/high social status, and when by frequency (when in Rome do as Romans do), or even an anti-prestige bias.

So the use of forks clearly spread because it was associated with what high status individuals did – a very common and important force of cultural evolution, as Juan points out in his reply above. But sometimes the opposite can happen, as stephendu points out. I’ll give two more examples. ‘Culottes’ were knee-length breeches worn by the French nobility under the Ancien Regime. During the French Revolution they fell out of fashion and everybody swtiched to wearing long pants, which were previously worn only by the working classes. The revolutionary masses called themselves ‘sans-culottes’, that is, those who did not wear culottes. The second example is the spread of the jeans, which were originally just a type of clothing worn by the working classes.

The question is, can we predict under what conditions one or the other bias will predominate? Actually we can, but this is worth addressing in another blog.

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