In one of his most famous essays, Charles Darwin firmly establishes the concept of evolution in the annals of scientific theory. He describes this process in three fundamental parts: Variation of characteristics within a species, now known to be a result of random genetic mutation; Heredity of characteristics from parent to offspring; and Natural Selection of those characteristics that best adapt a species to its environment. This last aspect of evolution Darwin describes as the, “preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations,” by limiting factors in the environment (Jacobus 438). One can expand this view of evolution to explain other phenomenon, particularly human culture.
Within the framework of human evolution, many scholars have considered little beyond opposable thumbs, upright stance, and increased brain capacity. However, as a result of nature’s extraordinary gift of intellectual adaptation, one will note how many traits of human culture follow a very similar pattern of variation, inheritance, and selection. A noteworthy example exists with regards to social structure. One can see from any history book that numerous social structures have risen and fallen within the whole of the human intellect, which accounts for variability in a creative fashion. These social structures were obviously passed from parent to offspring, although intellectually rather than genetically. And, as logic would dictate, they were cast aside in favor of newer systems as the demands of the environment became too taxing for them. This applies to such antiquated social systems as hunter/gatherer or feudalist, and perhaps to some extent with communism. A social system incapable of supporting the people who live beneath it must inevitably die off as a result of human-based natural selection.
This same idea applies to other social constructs, such as knowledge. Anthropology shows that knowledge occurs spontaneously as a result of human nature, and that it becomes increasingly refined with each generation. New ideas spring up, embraced by the new age, and vie with old ones until only the strongest and most viable remain. Simple human biology gives rise to concepts such as the soul, which become ideas of ghosts, ancestor worship, and magic. This pattern is seen in numerous indigenous cultures. Magic, it is theorized, then might become a more codified religion, and eventually progress to science. With each step, more and more scrutiny is placed on former ideals, with only the most viable being retained. One might even assume that, some time in the future, a new system of intellectual regard could come to replace science as more valid.
Applying evolutionary concepts in this manner, one can see a sort of cultural selection. Systems of social thought are continually manufactured, tested, and eliminated in a never-ending stream, producing a richly refined mix that best serves the next generation. Almost any aspect of culture, including aestheticism, technology, and philosophy, exhibits this sort of tendency, with variability demonstrating differences between cultures. Given this view, one can assume that human culture will continue to evolve, producing systems of thought that prove increasingly more effective in dealing with the problems of the age.
Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.