Cultural Evolution Can Not Keep Up with Technological Innovation

Anka Wilk

Historically, in the relationship between human culture and technology, cultural evolution has lagged behind the pace of technological innovation. Technology is the human solution to fulfilling human needs. As these needs change, new technologies will supplement the old ones; inevitable changing the culture which created it, resulting in a co-evolution of technology and culture; and impacting the future of their culture. The disparate rate of cultural vs. technological evolution has consequences which cloud the prospect of the future of the human race unless we change the historical blueprint and try to thwart our disposition towards ignoring the responsibility we have today for the world we will live in tomorrow.
Cultural evolution is the nature of human interaction, their relationship with the environment and the immediate and long term trajectory of these interactions as influenced by inherited knowledge, lifestyle and customs is how a culture adapts itself to the progress within and around it. Morgan "saw the history of human cultures as a progression from savagery, through barbarism to civilization" (Chant 54). This progression was inevitably caused by technology.
Technological innovation is increasing human mastery over resources and sources of energy. Technology has developed because of humans' "fear of death that our consciousness keeps lurking in the background". Technology historically has given solutions to the problems of survival by creating more efficient ways to get food and energy. However, after humans establish themselves at the top of the food chain, although the threshold between survival and comfort is unclear; human focus shifts from brute survival and to fulfilling luxurious wants. As a result of this drastic change in human culture, the focus of technology becomes satisfying these new secondary needs.

However, the creation of technologies which transcend the rudimentary is not possible without social stratification. Social stratification is only possible after humans are not in immediate danger of extinction Social stratification occurs when resources are limited, and as a result of as a result of agricultural surplus/taxes (Erlich 265). The smaller the number of people in a culture devoted to food production, the more people have the free time and in which to develop it. Technological advances in turn encourage a classed society; "it is not by chance that today the global maps f illiteracy and poverty so nearly coincide"(Erlich 268). So the more technologically advanced a society is, the more stratified it is, but technology has other consequences also.
The domino effect of technology can be divided into two different categories, macroevolution and microevolution. Erlich defines cultural macroevolution as, "the shaping of cultural trajectories by environmental factors"( 260); and microevolution as, "change driven by the internal dynamics of societies mixed with historical contingency and chance"(Erlich 269) Other examples of cultural microevolution are "technological advances and new trade and political movements"(Erlich 269) Technologies will inevitable change the cultures that create them, resulting in a co-evolution of technology and culture; and impacting the future of their culture. The main idea is that microevolutionary events have macroevolutionary consequences.
Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Technology develops to fulfill cultural needs. "The technological activity of city-building is embedded in social, political, religious and environmental contexts peculiar to the region" Chant 48 "Nomads developed technologies suited to their mobile way of life" Chant 53). Cross cultural sharing of technologies can lead to unexpected results. If a technology comes from within a culture, it is more suitable for that culture than a foreign innovation. For example, when the Inuit started using guns to hunt seals, they quickly died out. This culture could not foresee the long term implications of this new technology.
Each culture develops technologies to meet what it perceives as it's "needs" and the impact of these technologies impact supercedes their utility. "Man has wants which he likes to regard as 'needs'. He has basic physiological needs for food and drink. He has other elementary wants for clothing and heating. Finally he has, as it were, 'high standard' wants, like reading listening to music, traveling, and amusing himself"(Cipolla 35).
Early human technologies maximized human efforts:
"working stone, preparing primitive tools and taming the dog...and fire, man merely increased his efficiency to exploit the two groups of biological converters, plants and animals. In this situation, the 'economy' could expand without prejudice to its future prosperity only up to the point at which annual destruction of animals and plants equaled the rate at which plants and animals were replacing themselves. Any expansion beyond this crucial point could take place only at the cost of contraction in the future. To break this bottleneck man had to learn how to control and increase the supply of plants and animals or to discover new sources of energy."(Cipolla 43).
However, the advent of agriculture and industry made it possible to support larger populations. Before, early Technologies served to increase the efficiency of human energy. The advancement of energy use leads to the development of new technologies.
The individual circumstances of any people will determine what technologies they need and which ones they develop. The culture will dictate how technologies are used and therefore what the consequences are. For example, the United States is the top consumer of fossil fuels in the world. One reason is widespread use of cars which is possible by low car and fuel prices. In other countries, people do not drive a lot because they cannot afford cars or fuel; or there are not enough roads, or there are adequate and affordable methods of public transportation. Because the United States is a car culture, the carbon dioxide emissions of the United States average twenty metric tons per capita . The United States are contributing to global warming, going to war for oil, and filling up landfills. This is demonstrative of a vulture which has not even signed the Kyoto pact.
Perhaps this is because Americans, like most humans who invent a technology, they are concerned with an immediate need and have the mindset that this technology will serve them a long time; as a result, the long term ramifications or feasibility this new technology are overlooked; until they become an immovable part of the culture.
Many early technologies if not still in use today were the precursors to modern ones. In For examples, "Nomads developed technologies suited to their mobile way of life" (Chant 53). Drower describes how early farming in northern Africa and the middle east relied on water technologies, including learning how to take advantage of natural river flooding. Some examples of early technology are wells or cisterns, which made possible the intensification of land use (agriculture). Ultimately any new technology becomes a part of people's lifestyle and both this technology and its corresponding lifestyle becomes a permanent part of a culture. Humans allow the increasing environmental pressure caused by agriculture and industry leads humans threshold develop a new technology to push the threshold of production up a notch. In feminist theory, a technological solution to a cultural problem is known as the Tech Fix.
It is easier to just change technologies than to reform a culture. This is supported when the course of human history shows that it is easier to adapt new technologies to solve our problems than it is to change the circumstances which create these problems in the first place. Microevolution and macroevolution and technologies are a continuous, intertwined cycle.
The interaction of culture and technology is a cycle. One technology can arise, and become a part of a culture, change this culture, and create a new void which a new technology must fill. As populations grow, human trend is to live in areas in which finding food was more labor intensive- this is drove the invention of new technologies. Technology changes the environment, then we need technology to adapt to the new environment. Ex- tech fix. Sometimes the cycles seems to reverse "progress", as in the case of Easter Island, even regression. But this was progress, since people adapted new lifestyle to environmental factors.
The pressure on the environment in turn increases the dependence on technology. Two of the "Cultural evolutionary responses to the pressures of population growth" are "intensification of resource extraction…increases centralization and bureaucratic stratification(required to deal with ever larger populations of people), the spread of birth-control practice and technologies, and migration" (Erlich 278). In an interview on NPR, Erlich says that knowledge about environmental issues will lead to development of new technologies. He also stresses that we as a culture, have to take responsibility for microevolution. One example he gives is that the government should take steps to promote green technologies and make them affordable, overlooking the short term financial considerations to insure future economic sustainability. But this is not happing yet. Our economic systems are not capable of adapting to the fast rate of environmental change. Human culture and behavior adapts to the current population density; when the population balloons, behaviors and culture are slower to change than human capacity to employ new knowledge.
Culture lags behind the rate of technological evolution this has macroevolutionary circumstances. This was the case on Easter Island. The main staple of this society's culture, a slow growing tree, was a resource which was not replenishing itself at the rate it was being consumed. This cultural addiction to non-renewable resources; or disregard of replanting trees becomes so ingrained in a culture that it is almost blind to the fact that this is will not be possible in the future. Easter Island was an isolated location, but today, we have a 'global economy' and environmental resources are no longer locally controlled. If indeed, the underlying human trait is that we fear death, (find source) "how to keep national and transnational societies that are organized around free markets from destroying humanity's life support systems? Has human culture evolved from the social small groups to the global community and economy of today?
In conclusion, historically there is no trend to show that humans will change their cultures to adapt to the limited resources the environment naturally provides. It is easier to develop new technologies than to change the cultures. The earth has reached the threshold, of human life that can be supported; in order to survive, humans need to take a two fold approach- the industrialized world needs to put into practice green energies; and all human cultures need to anticipate the macroevolutionary consequences of the daily culture and lifestyle. Choices need to be made, keeping sustainability in mind. History has shown that human law, religion, government and policy greatly influence cultural macroevolution.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/23/03