Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Emerging Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution releases roadmap document

Posted 17 Jan 2016 / 1
2016-01-17aPallas Athena emerging from the head of Zeus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is an exciting time in the study of cultural evolution, so it is appropriate that a new scholarly society dedicated to the study of how culture evolves should emerge. Supported by the Evolution Institute, a number of prominent academics whose work includes the study of cultural evolution have come together to seed the formation of the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution. Impressively they have attracted over one thousand people to become inaugural members of the society.

Recently the steering committee for the society met, charted a course, and published a roadmap for forming the society (“Birthing the Cultural Evolution Society“).

The first thing that was discussed was changing the name of the society to Cultural Evolution Society. I can imagine this was done for aesthetic reasons — Cultural Evolution Society definitely flows off the tongue more elegantly — but I kind of like the idea that the society is for the study of something. Cultural Evolution Society sounds more like a booster group than a scholarly endeavor to my ears. Names are important, so I hope those steering the early stages of the society continue to consider alternatives with the potential to best capture what this society will do.

The steering committee also settled on a set of core values that I am excited about. Included in these values is the maintenance of scientific objectivity and interdisciplinarity, two pulls with the promise to create healthy dynamic tension in the group. While the society needs to embrace the perspectives and methodologies of diverse modes of inquiry, I am also glad to see that it will resist the subjective pitfalls of cultural relativism and academic cults. Plenty of people have analyzed culture by making cursory observations, floating explanatory hypotheses, and then arguing ad nauseum about why their personal hypothesis is correct. While the society needs to embrace a diversity of questions and hypotheses, there has to be an emphasis on actually testing the predictions of such hypotheses using some variant of scientific testing.

I am also excited about the core values that relate to making cultural evolution socially relevant. Currently, about the only socially-relevant thing that I do with my scholarship is teach; teaching is really important, but I would love to be able to do scholarship that can actually improve people’s lives. It would be wonderful if the Cultural Evolution Society could serve as a beacon pointing us all towards applying our research to critical social problems.

Another major goal for the emerging society is to form Special Interest Groups. What exactly these will be needs to be further defined, but my sense of them is that they will provide platforms for collaborative inquiry on particular topics. One of the inaugural Special Interest Groups will be dedicated to the study of intentional communities, which are interesting in that they attempt to use cultural design to achieve community goals.

The roadmap also discusses the relationship to the Evolution Institute, which is at the very least needed to act as a financial conduit for the Templeton Foundation grant awarded to seed the formation of the society. Although I get that there’s a need for a foundling society to have the support of an existing non-profit — and that it is prominent members of the Evolution Institute who have gotten this project off the ground — I do think that the sooner the Cultural Evolution Society (or whatever it eventually gets called) becomes independent, the better. There’s a risk that an association with the Evolution Institute, which is responsible for sites like This View of Life, Social Evolution Forum, and Evonomics, will limit who becomes involved in this emerging society. I love the various productions of the Evolution Institute to varying degrees, but each of these publications basically amounts to being the exclusive platform of a few prominent scholars. That’s fine, but a society dedicated to studying a broad field needs to be perceived as something more than the pet project of academics with a particular agenda and set of interests. I am excited to see the Cultural Evolution Society outgrow its first instar exoskeleton and molt into its own entity steered by a diverse membership.

A Minor Post, Cultural Evolution, Public Outreach, Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution

1 Comment to "Emerging Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution releases roadmap document"

Joe Brewer 18th January 2016 at 11:26 pm

Dear Christopher,

Thank you for this inspired and thoughtful post! As the coordinator for this society (I wrote the original blog post you referenced above), I want to reassure you that all of your concerns and aspirations are being heard. Our steering committee has already aired most of them — and come to similar conclusions.

Which is to say, we look forward to engaging the larger community of founding members like yourself to help shape what this society becomes. Our first order of business is to get the organizational setup far enough along that we can begin nominating people for leadership positions. At present, there is an ad hoc steering committee who have volunteered to get the ball rolling. But we all are serious about how important it is to get a democratically elected leadership in place.

Please let me know any other thoughts you have about the society. I look forward to building it collaboratively with you and others in the next year!

Very best,

Joe Brewer
Culture Designer
The Evolution Institute

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