I want to launch into the controversial topic of socio-cultural evolution. This is the idea that there can be identified certain cross-cultural stages of development that appear to be universal.
Firstly we need to make an important distinction. We can distinguish between two aspects of any culture:
Surface culture includes all the superficial expressions of a culture. Whether we wear a sari or a suit, wear a bowler hat or a headscarf, eat curry or fish and chips, pray in a church or a mosque, listen to reggae or bangra, drive on the left or the right, celebrate Eid or Christmas. These are the things that make life vibrant, interesting and colourful. They are what most people mean when talking of the joys of multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance. They are the aspects of culture where there is no better or worse or higher and lower. There is simply personal preference, historical familiarity and sentimental attachment. Although we need to be sensitive to peoples preferences and fear of the unfamiliar there is no question of legitimately ranking these aspects of culture in terms of ‘more evolved’ or ‘less evolved’.
Deep culture refers to the hidden value systems and world-views that lie behind the surface expressions. Whether we believe in gender equality or misogyny, whether we believe in individual freedom or subservience to a theocratic dogma. Is truth handed down from the king, an omnipotent deity or do we need to use reason to struggle towards understanding the universe? Is our primary allegiance to elders and the clan, our nation state or all of humanity? How do we understand concepts like honour, freedom, guilt and duty?
These are the aspects of cultures that can legitimately be studied and examined for patterns and stages. We can attempt to outline how these stages could be related in a holonic way, with each stage transcending and including the last. Perhaps to see how modern, progressive and inclusive worldviews are a result of building on successive stages of previous development. This will enable us to honour and respect the contributions of all worldviews whilst negating the negative effects of their partiality.
We may then have a framework for trying to discuss and untangle some of the enormous cultural dynamics that the globalised world is facing today.
An organisation at the forefront of developing these ideas is the Institute for Cultural Evolution.
This excellent paper on their site explores the philosophy underpinning this approach:
The next post on this topic will introduce some of the cultural worldviews that have been identified in these types of models. As a taster here is an excellent diagram from the ICE that illustrates the sort of information that can be organized using this approach. I will be using this diagram extensively!