Continuities in Cultural Evolution
The Future of Man
It is evident that we are living in a cultural reformation: a harsh and perhaps disruptive movement in which we are all engaged. The fabric of western culture, its tangled skein of social habits, artifacts, and values, is being pulled apart and made over—by us. We have set going the headlong changes in conduct and belief which now fill us with questions. Is there a single direction in these changes? Is there, in particular, an imaginative direction in the arts and sciences which points the way for a future culture? How shall we educate fresh generations, either to follow the changes or to lead them? What is the future of man? And is there any point in our wanting that future to conform to our own conception of man?
In a time of such grand uncertainties, which we all prompted and all share, we are naturally drawn to the social sciences; and they are naturally more voluble than ever. I have picked two books from the many published in 1964, for several reasons. My overriding reason, of course, is that Margaret Mead is, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was, outstanding in intellectual depth and in scientific vision. And they mark the two ends of the spectrum of speculation: Margaret Mead is searching for the smallest step of social change, and Teilhard de Chardin by contrast looked only for its cosmic direction. They are equally at extremes in the relative importance that they give to the individual man and to his society; it is ironic that Margaret Mead, the social anthropologist, stresses the part played by the individual, and that Teilhard de Chardin, the shepherd of souls, pictured a society without men. And I must not hide my last reason: both writers understand what makes a theory scientific, the demands for order and coherence that it must meet, and they hold to this scrupulous standard.
The scientific concept which they both share is that of evolution. Margaret Mead’s Continuities in Cultural Evolution in particular tackles the heroic task of giving an exact and rational meaning to this, the oldest and, alas, the vaguest concept in social science. For the strange thing is that the ideas of evolution, in the modern sense, began in the eighteenth century in studies not of biology, but of human society. Charles Darwin was led to the critical step in the theory of evolution by something that he found in a work on social science. He had returned from his five-year voyage in the Beagle, and was patiently putting his notes and his thoughts in order, when, in October 1838,
I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
Darwin said that he read Malthus for amusement because, of course, he did not take the social sciences seriously.
So also, when Darwin at last published the Origin of Species in 1859, the social sciences took up his theme and turned it into a general philosophy. Herbert Spencer spent the rest of his long life in elaborating a system which explained all human conduct and ethics by the processes of evolution. His influence was prodigious: for example, he gave the language the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” which (at the suggestion of Russel Wallace) Darwin put into later editions of the Origin. If no one now reads or prizes what Herbert Spencer worked out with such pains, it is precisely because meanwhile we have adopted it as self-evident.
There is good historical ground, then, for saying that evolution has been a persistent idea in social science for quite two hundred years, and that its entry into biology is an almost accidental offshoot from that tradition. The obvious question, therefore, is why evolution has been so much less useful an idea in the social than in the natural sciences. Darwin (and Wallace) revolutionized our understanding of the relation between the species of animals by arranging them in a family tree of evolution. Quite recently, physicists have revolutionized our understanding of the relation between the chemical elements, by turning the periodic table of Mendeleev into a family tree of evolution. Yet the first of the sciences that recognized evolution, the study of society, has uncovered no such profound order in two hundred years.
One plain reason is that no one has been able to lay bare the mechanism which turns one network of social relations, one set of values, one culture, into another. The machinery of competition, which worked so well in biology, and which was a favorite of the nineteenth-century sociologists, has done nothing to explain the evolution of cultures. It remains today as shallow and as false a predictor as it was in Malthus and in the eighteenth-century rationalists from whom he took it.
Underneath this there is a deeper and basic reason. We do not know the mechanism for social evolution because we have not been able to pin down the units with which it works—which it shuffles and re-groups, and whose mutations make the raw material for new cultures. In physics, the evolution of the elements works by building up more and more complex nuclei from two units, the protons and the neutrons. In biology, evolution has for its new units those stable mutants which Charles Darwin called “sports,” and within which Gregor Mendel later found the genes. But no analysis has yet isolated an acceptable unit of social structure.
This is the central problem in the study of cultures which Margaret Mead’s book sets out to solve. She is concerned very precisely with the machinery of social evolution. And she looks for it in the minutiae of cultural change, the small shifts between one society and its neighbor, and not in the grand panorama which anthropologists have often tried to assemble. In her own phrase, her subject is “Cultural Micro-Evolution.”
It has been suggested before now that the unit in such change, its smallest step, is a human invention: an artifact such as an axe or a map or, more elaborately, the Samoan house, which fixes and carries the fine detail of a culture. More recently, anthropologists have looked for this unit not in physical invention but in social innovation. Margaret Mead is at her best here; her account, for example, of the origin and growth of pidgin English is masterly. She is able to make the concept of innovation work more exactly and concretely than has seemed possible hitherto. This is because she boldly attacks the problem at the heart of cultural transmission: the human means by which an innovation is made or borrowed, is advocated and, in the end, is disseminated.
As for this human means, her conclusions are downright. There must be a man, one man, who has an affection for the culture into which he was born, but is impatient with its timid adherence to old habits. And he must have around him a band of a few disciples, what she calls a cluster, who are attached to him, are excited by his vision, and get a personal satisfaction from spreading his ideas. Such a small intense leader is not a hero of history, yet he and his cluster are the means by which the interlocking changes in society are made, one by one. Margaret Mead describes a man of this stamp who in 1946 rallied three hostile tribes in the Pacific, made them build houses, docks, schools, a common treasury, and in three years “transformed a Neolithic society into a very crude but systematic version of a mid-twentieth century society.”
Clearly this analysis fits many innovators, for example in the arts and even in science. It also explains why changes in our social organization in the large, changes in formal institutions and procedures, come so much harder and slower than in the informal communities of art and of science. We see how it is that evolution can make changes in culture as radical as those which only revolution can make in government.
In all this, Margaret Mead’s analysis is absorbing, provocative, and often decisive. Moreover, she has given a new turn to the discussion of the place of the hero in history, which long ago puzzled Darwin and Herbert Spencer. She is splendidly sensible, in particular, in chiding those fanatics who think that the human heritage can only be preserved by breeding a race of supermen.
Yet, in fact, her vision fails when she looks forward to the future. Surprisingly, what she has found does not help her to predict. She confesses that there is no way to recognize a leader except by his success, and therefore that we do not know how to bring about the changes for which we yearn. When she leaves analysis and proposes action, her book suddenly falls flat. After all that I have said by way of commendation, I may be forgiven for quoting mischievously from one of her closing chapters, “Possible Forms of Centers with an Evolutionary Potential”.
Dotted over the campus of the several institutions are small rooms where coffee is served at more or less fixed hours, and here, with the breath-taking speed that is so characteristic of American life, plans are hatched, ideas are briefly challenged, a reference to some remote work is given and received. “I didn’t quite understand what you meant the other day; can you give me a refererence?” Later there arrives a large envelope on both sides of which are imprinted little boxes saying To and From, already half filled with names, so that one has a sense of being part of a network of communication.
I doubt whether small innovations in culture are carried in large envelopes marked To and From.
The speculations of Teilhard de Chardin are, I have said, at the opposite extreme to Margaret Mead’s. His vision was of macro-evolution, on a cosmic scale. Moreover, to still his own religious scruples and those of his superiors in the Jesuit order, he colored his vision with a rich mystic lacquer. But the essence of what he had to say is plain, and it is particularly plain in this book of essays, which collects what Teilhard thought as he thought it, over thirty years. The Future of Man says nothing unexpected, yet it is to me much the most interesting of Teilhard de Chardin’s books.
Teilhard held that what his fellow biologists call the higher animals are higher, not only in the scale of biological complexity, but on any scale of values which makes sense to us. And on that scale we are, of course, highest among the animals. This is (in Teilhard’s view) an absolute scale: evolution has labored most elaborately on God’s behalf to produce man. The complexity which places man absolutely above the other animals is expressed in his possession of mind. So far (apart from the religious intrusions) few biologists would find fault with Teilhard.
Man’s mind enables him to form concepts, use language, build societies and cultures; above all, it enables him to work in intellectual community with others. Human groups are not mere packs of wolves or monkeys (in whose communal habits Teilhard was not interested) but are societies in which knowledge is fixed and handed on, and in which the intellectual and emotional life of each man is sustained by his unity with others—for the glory of God. So far (apart from the religious intrusions) few anthropologists would find fault with Teilhard.
What Teilhard did now was to project the direction of evolution forward, beyond man as he is to that which his endowments seem to design him for. He concluded that the social use of the intellect is the peak of man’s talents, and would become their ultimate realization.
The era of active evolution did not end with the appearance of the human zoological type: for by virtue of his acquirement of the gift of individual reflection Man displays the extraordinary quality of being able to totalize himself collectively upon himself, thus extending on a planetary scale the fundamental vital process which causes matter, under certain conditions, to organize itself in elements which are ever more complex physically, and psychologically ever more centrated. Thus (provided always that we accept the organic nature of the social phenomenon) we see being woven around us, beyond any unity hitherto acknowledged or even foreseen by biology, the network and consciousness of a Noosphere.
Teilhard foresaw a universal community of men who no longer have individual minds, but flow into one all-embracing mind, “an envelope of thinking substance” around the world. It was as if all mankind would, become a single clone of cells—or a single insect colony, informed by a common unity of mind instead of common instincts.
This is of course a cultural, not a biological dream: what Teilhard called “An Irresistible Physical Process: The Collectivization of Mankind.” Nor did he balk at its totalitarian implications:
My answer is that I do not think we are yet in a position to judge recent totalitarian experiments fairly: …it is not the principle of totalization that is at fault but the clumsy and incomplete way in which it has been applied.
It has been thought that Teilhard was silenced by his superiors, and died in 1955 with his work unpublished, because they would not acknowledge that man has evolved as the other animals have, without a special act of creation. But it seems to me that they must also have shuddered at his picture of the future, in which man will lose his identity in a God who has become a sort of queen-bee of mind. Indeed, they cannot have approved his wish to see man saved by collective rather than personal grace.
Teilhard de Chardin was, beneath the faith and the hallelujahs, a pessimist about the fate of man; Margaret Mead, pouring her torrential prose over the coffee tables, is an optimist. I am on her side. But I am conscious that when any one of us thinks about the future, what we see is still hopelessly vague and idealized. I fear that, at bottom, we are handicapped by a shortcoming of scientific method. We find it hard to analyze culture and society because they are not things but activities. For we are all, as scientists, thing-directed; the method of the natural sciences (biological as well as physical) is to manipulate things which persist through time and which, if they change, change into other things. This search for things as the units of science may be slackening, and it may be that another generation will be more process-directed than we are. (Perhaps a prophetic example is the later work of Konrad Lorenz on the evolution of animal gesture, such as the courtship poses of different species.) If so, the social sciences will have a better backing in scientific method, and may become the leaders in discovery. But meanwhile we lack the conceptual habits to handle the units of behavior, the fluent actions and innovations, from which social conduct is compounded.
The other conclusion that I draw from these two remarkable books is larger. Every discussion of culture, and every projection of it, in the end must confront the importance that we give to the individual man and the importance that we give to society as a whole. This was clear to Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he first conceived the evolution of society back in the eighteenth century. Now it is clearer that this confrontation, this balance, hinges on our conception of the nature of man. What makes a man, any man, specifically human? How does he differ from the other animals, first biologically and then mentally? What are the talents which are truly human, all the way back to the Stone Age and before? And how have the successive ages nourished them to become the human gifts of today?
This is a bold program of analysis, both in biology and in culture. And only when we know all that this asks—the essential identity of man—have we earned the right to look forward. We can then say with confidence that our projections point along the line which is fixed by the human talents, and will help to fulfill them. It is not what we think society is that counts, but what we think man is. The only meaning for culture is the fulfillment of man as the very special and gifted, the unique animal: the social solitary.