The rate of cultural evolution, jerky or smooth?

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There has long been a tiresome debate in evolutionary biology (or at least in pop science books about evolutionary biology) whether evolution generally proceeds gradually or in bursts alternating with stasis. But I wonder: what about cultural evolution? With evolutionary biology we can look at fossils and the molecular substrate to determine the nature of change; with culture it is a little different because of its amorphous character. Some aspects are pretty easy to quantify, for example baby names for example drift like genes subject to purely random forces. On the other hand, my perception is that attitudes toward homosexuality have changed very fast over the last 15 years, so that some of the positions staked out by “social conservatives” in 2007 would be out of the mainstream for being too pro-gay in the late 1980s (here are polls). Has anyone out there plotted changes of attitudes from sources like Gallup and noticed whether the changes were gradual or subject to sharp increases or decreased in frequency?

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5 Comments

  1. Some aspects are easy to quantify, for example baby names for example drift like genes subject to purely random forces. On the other hand, my perception is that attitudes toward homosexuality have changed very fast over the last 15 years 
     
    These are not contrasting positions! From the link: 
     
    The model is based on the population genetics concept of ‘random genetic drift’, in which the frequency of genes in a population fluctuates according to chance, and where there is only a small population of breeding parents. 
     
    Baby names fluctuate very fast because of the small “breeding” population. Same with other aspects of culture.

  2. (“breeding population”, in this case, describes the propagation of names, not babies)

  3. Inductivist looks at changes in attitudes / practices a lot. It’s based on GSS, so usually goes back about 30 years, iirc, but still something.

  4. ISTM that it’s hard to work out the “natural” speed of cultural evolution in our environment, with constant enormous technological and economic change driving all kinds of other changes. Are there examples of cultural evolution that we could study from times when the world wasn’t changing so rapidly?  
     
    Maybe language? Language is surely more stable now than in 1500, and the changes have probably included both random drift/mutation, selection (words morphing into shorter versions), and even flow (borrowed words from languages brought in by immigrants).  
     
    I guess tools would give another example. My uninformed impression is that for most of history, the toolset available stayed pretty constant; if you were a carpenter or blacksmith, your grandfather could probably have used your tools to good effect with little trouble. Is that right?  
     
    By contrast, a first-rate civil engineer of 1957 would have to learn a whole new set of tools to be even remotely qualified for his job in 2007, and a first-rate civil engineer from 2007, dropped back to 1957, would have similar problems.

  5. Just an anecdote. In 1985 at university, a candidate for a student office was asked about homosexuals’ concerns. His response was “I don’t care about the gays, set them on fire.” This comment was reported censoriously in the student newspaper, along with some quotes from students who supported him. The student was not suspended, expelled, or punished in any form, nor was there any question whether he should be. I don’t recall if his won his election (I don’t believe he did).

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