The evolution of cultural organisms

The evolution of human cultural organisms can be understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction. The concepts of cultural organisms, cultural species, and collaborative niche construction are abstract, but they relate to more than ten years of lived experience with the NeurodiVenture operating model, an emergent cultural species that is able to survive and even thrive in the dynamic social and ecological context in which we find ourselves.

If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations. The resulting dynamic web of interdependencies can simply be thought of as the web of life rather than “civilisation 2.0”.

We must not to again make the anthropocentric mistake of putting humans at the centre of the universe.

Cultural evolution and creative niche construction

The current human predicament is the result of the way in which the current mainstream human social operating system acts as a collective learning disability. The opportunity that presents itself today is to reflect critically on human hubris and human cognitive limitations, and on all the irreversible damage we have already inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems and the biosphere. 

There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the information age to the second knowledge age. Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.

Don’t simply believe everything that I am writing about cultural evolution and human niche construction. I would like to encourage everyone to independently reflect on their own lived experience, and to read as much as possible from a broad range of perspectives on the human capacity for cultural evolution.

Culture shapes what people attend to, perceive, remember, and how they think, feel, and reason

WEIRD intellectuals have long argued that olfaction is the least important of the five senses, and this has been the standard view in psychology and even in anthropology. Yet, this may be a WEIRD bias… Recent work among both forager-horticulturalists in Bolivia and hunter-gatherers in Malaysia suggests that these populations are superior at identifying scents and possess a richer vocabulary that includes an array of basic (abstract) scent terms (Majid & Kruspe, 2018; Sorokowska et al., 2013)… While philosophers have recognized some of this important work on olfaction (Barwich, 2020), it’s less clear that the field has fully digested the implications of relying on WEIRD neuroscience (Han et al., 2013; Kitayama et al., 2017, 2019)…

… sex differences in navigational cognition don’t always emerge. In East Africa, sex differences in navigational abilities were not found among participants still living a traditional foraging lifestyle; instead, they only arose among participants from communities located closer to the market towns, where people tended to be less mobile and had smaller range sizes (Cashdan et al., 2012). Likewise, among Tsimane adults, where men and women both travel far for food, sex differences in navigational ability were not observed (Trumble et al., 2015).

… growing evidence suggests that social norms and institutions can shape theory of mind, giving rise to cross-cultural variation in mentalizing inclinations. WEIRD people appear to be “hyper-mentalizers”, lying at the extreme end of the global spectrum (Barrett et al., 2016; Curtin et al., 2020). Although children everywhere reliably develop theory of mind, the trajectory of this development varies across societies. Notably, there is cross-cultural variation in the order of acquisition of theory of mind concepts: while WEIRD children tend to understand that others can have different beliefs before they understand that others can have different knowledge, Chinese and Turkish children show the opposite pattern, potentially reflecting cultural differences related to individualism versus collectivism (Selcuk et al., 2018; Wellman et al., 2006)...

… most Western intellectuals implicitly assume that their intuitions, motivations, preferences, emotions and ways of thinking generalize across all of humanity. But, while this is sometimes the case, we don’t yet have reliable theories that tell us when and where such generalizations are safe. Philosophers should proceed with caution. What if many aspects of our reasoning abilities and judgments are influenced by cultural evolution?

Epistemic norms shape what people (1) attend to when seeking out information, (2) count as evidence and (3) consider as a persuasive argument (Henderson, 2020; Kauppinen, 2018; Littlejohn & Turri, 2014; Tomasello, 2020). Epistemic norms are so-called because they govern not actions or decisions, but the identification of relevant information, the weighting of different kinds of evidence, and the evaluation of various forms of argument. This influences the formation and updating of beliefs. Some norms apply to particular epistemic activities, such as how one ought to make inferences. For example, epistemic norms regulate how one should deal with inconsistencies, interrogate the entailments of, and conflict among, one’s own beliefs, and update one’s beliefs in light of new observations. Other epistemic norms govern more social aspects of information handling (Brady & Fricker, 2016; Goldman & O’Connor, 2019), such as how much confidence to have in the testimony of different individuals or in different kinds of people based on their social identity and group membership (“respect the wisdom of your elders,” “believe women,” or “distrust strangers”). Others prescribe how much to trust the claims made by different institutions and their leaders, and how much authority or deference should be given to experts of different kinds…

In the emerging interdisciplinary field of Cultural Evolution, a rising tide of theoretical and empirical work that has emerged over the last four decades makes a strong case that humans are a cultural species, that both our minds and bodies arose as products of the interaction between genes and culture over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Cultural evolutionists have argued that our capacities for cumulative cultural evolution, the hallmark of our species, produces many of the tools, techniques and heuristics that we think and reason with—ready examples include number systems, fractions, physical concepts (e.g., elastically stored energy and wheels) and perceptual categories (abstract color and scent terms). Social norms and daily demands mean that people habitualize the use of these in ways that recede into the background and become part of how we automatically perceive and process the world. Specifically, humans have evolved genetically to mold our minds and brains to culturally-constructed worlds—adapting to their diverse incentives, affordances, and constraints…

It’s now clear that much of what we find in social and developmental psychology textbooks is simply the “cultural psychology” of WEIRD people and represents a quantitative ethnographic description of how a particular population thinks, remembers, feels and reasons rather than a systematic study of human nature or our species’ evolved psychology. Philosophers, by confronting the WEIRD people problem and harnessing the tools found in Cultural Evolution, can avoid perpetuating a peculiar brand of “culturalphilosophy,” rooted in WEIRD intuitions, and instead begin to construct a philosophy for Homo sapiens.

Henrich, J., Blasi, D.E., Curtin, C.M. et al. A Cultural Species and its Cognitive Phenotypes: Implications for Philosophy. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2022).

Below is a compilation of four complementary perspectives that transcend the tiny Overton window of W.E.I.R.D. cultures:

The revolution will not be nudged

The economic perspective

We keep finding that humans are often honest, kind fair, cooperative. Humans often invest costly resources to help others, to reduce inequality, to sustain social norms. And yet, at the macro level we are finding that deforestation and carbon emissions, in the aggregate continue.

S-frame: the system of rules, norms and institutions by which we live. S-frame changes have created the most important transformations, not I-frame changes.

I-frame: the neural and cognitive machinery that underpins thoughts and behaviours. I-frame policies change behaviour without changing the rules of the game, they are cheap, quick, and politically less contentious. I-frame interventions might delay or even erode the possibilities of S-frame changes.

C-frame: communities, cooperations, collective actions that build institutions (social norms and structures), constrain and align individuals towards group oriented goals, and aggregate processes to elevate their political clout. The C-frame is the the bridge between the I-frame and the S-frame, it is where formal institutions meet individual actions, and where informal institutions emerge, are sustained, or die – it is also where badly or naively designed S-frame policies may fail (social norms and power distribution).

Prof Juan Camilo Cardenas presents examples from Colombia and other countries of changes that become possible when the existence of the C-frame is acknowledged, and when the C-frame receives adequate attention.

Evolution and the human ways of being 

A synthesis of the anthropological and biological perspectives

Agustín Fuentes is a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University whose research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. From chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining human health, behavior, and diversity across the globe, Agustín is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our close relations tick.

Importantly, and consistent with everything that the neurodiversity movement stands for, Prof Agustín Fuentes uses the concepts of creative and collaborative niche construction to push back against the naive and misleading concept of “human nature” and presents a compelling case for a diversity of “human natures”, without resorting to any pathologising medical model.


Agustín Fuentes, Biological science rejects the sex binary, and that’s good for humanity, 2022 (article)

Agustín Fuentes, Considering all humans and other organisms in the Anthropocene: learning to listen, 2021 (article)

Agustín Fuentes, Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being, 2019, (book)

Agustín Fuentes, Why we believe : Evolution, making meaning, and development of human natures, 2017, (lectures)

How to change a system

The political perspective

We need to change the system. But if the system is made up of individuals, should we start there? Colombian changemaker Isabel Cavalier negates the binary of systems vs individuals, explaining that while cultural change starts from within, its impact and progress can be non-linear—much like climate change. Isabel effortlessly weaves political strategy with spiritual knowledge to explain how culture is the solution to the polycrisis, emphasising that we must re-embed individuals within communities to embody a politics of a better world.

Isabel is a former diplomat who held advisory roles on environmental issues at the Colombian Mission to the United Nations in New York and at the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bogotá. After leaving international politics, Isabel co-founded Transforma, a prominent Bogota-based environmental think tank. She is a writer, story-teller and potter, who trained as a lawyer and in socio-cultural studies at the University of Los Andes. She has a Master of Laws from the University of Cambridge. She has worked and published in diverse fields including human rights, racial and gender discrimination, and climate change.

Isabel advocates for a shift in political focus on local collaboration and decision making, to what I refer to as human scale, and for a diversity of local cultures.

Towards stronger localised low-stress economic structures

The mental health perspective

Gabor Mate speaks with Helena Norberg-Hodge about the economy, happiness, community, and healing. They explore the systemic roots of physical and mental health epidemics, and how these could be remedied through moving away from a disconnecting, stress-inducing global economy, towards stronger localized economic structures.

Helena Norberg Hodge’s work is informed by engaging with human scale traditions in Ladakh over decades, observing how local communities have been affected by the industrialised notion of “progress”. The traditional culture in Ladakh was based entirely on trusted relationships at human scale instead of abstract group identities. The focus on trusted relationships mirrors the way in which Autistic people collaborate and develop Autistic culture – if given the opportunity. In the traditional culture in Ladakh, where every person is appreciated for their unique strengths and weaknesses, it would seem very unlikely for Autistic people to be pathologised.

Repeating patterns of cultural adaptations

From the perspective of the rituals of daily life, culture may not seem to change much from year to year, but if we look closely in the right places, major changes take place every 5 to 10 years. The toxicity of the industrialised paradigm is not the absence of cultural dynamism, but the systematic channeling of all cultural change into frantic busyness within an established and fundamentally misguided paradigm:

Human beings have evolved complex and adaptive strategies for social cohesion. Our neurology is primed to establish rapport with other humans, to utilize reciprocal altruism, and to work toward common goals. Such social relationships require real-world, organic calibration to take effect. The establishment of rapport, for example, depends on eye contact, synchronized respiration, and recognition of subtle changes in vocal timbre.

In virtual spaces, these mechanisms cease to function. In fact, when human beings fail to establish “social resonance” through digital media, they tend to blame not the low fidelity of the medium, but the trustworthiness of the other party. We repeat: the inability to establish organic social bonds through digital media increases our suspicion of one another, not the medium through which we are failing to connect.

This creates the perfect preconditions for memetic attack. The people, newscasters, friends, and experts we encounter through digital media are not trusted. The bots, algorithms, images and ideas to which we are exposed, on the other hand, are accepted at face value.

The only surefire safeguard against this state of vulnerability is to reaffirm the live, local, social, organic relationships between the people in the target population. This means challenging the value of time spent socializing and entertaining themselves on digital platforms, and giving people enough minutes of non-connected, social experiences each day to anchor live human-to-human connection as the primary form of social engagement.

People with some live experience of local politics, mutual aid, and environmental maintenance will be more resistant to the memetic constructions of the synthetic ideological landscape. They will be more likely to blame low fidelity on technology than one another, and less likely to accept the false, anti-social premises of angry, sensationalist memes. The less alienated a population
is from one another, the harder it is to turn them against one another through polarizing memetics.

The Biology of Disinformation : memes, media viruses, and cultural inoculation
by D Rushkoff, D Pescovitz, J Dunagan, 2018

The ubiquitous crisis of a lack of imagination generated by the cult of busyness has been with us at least since the 1970s. Erik Torenberg for example comments on Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, by Robert Pirsig (1991) as follows:

Where are values? … Objects are value-free, … science claims to be objective, … indifferent to values. This attitude is everywhere. It has permeated science and all disciplines that aspire to emulate science.

“This is called the ‘fact-value’ dichotomy, and it has been basically unchallenged in Western philosophy for several hundred years.  The question quality – values – morals – basically has been banished. They are not part of the object, so they just become part of the subject, and thus subjective.”

Artists, visionaries, sometimes even religious figures see reality in a different way that compels people so thoroughly that they shift society. These people were dynamic — if they saw the world in static ways they would have never made those breakthroughs. They weren’t seeing the world from intellect, limited by the subject-object duality, but from “Quality”. As the book says, “if it were not mysterious and unexplainable, it would not be quality”.

The difficulty, though, … for every Christ or Buddha that changes civilization, there are thousands of crackpots who claim to be doing the same thing but are just distractions. Or in other words, all good new ideas come from dynamic patterns, but all new bad ideas come from those dynamic patterns as well.

Similarly both David Graeber and Peter Thiel lament “Where Did the Future Go?” in 2014, looking back over previous decades from two quite different perspectives, and yet both retaining a level of technological optimism that seems naive from today’s perspective. It has become clear that we not not only need to replace the misleading belief in the ability to control super-human scale phenomena with trustworthy relationships at human scale, but we also need to replace the misleading belief in the our ability to maintain W.E.I.R.D. energy hungry ways of life, informed amongst other things by the timeless wisdom still found in some indigenous societies.

The futility of within-paradigm incrementalism only becomes fully visible from a transdisciplinary viewpoint. For the Neurodiversity Movement this means that engaging exclusively with the pathologising silos of W.E.I.R.D. psychiatry and psychology is a dead end.

Not only do we find that the Homo economicus predictions fail in every society (24 societies, multiple communities per society), but instructively, we find that it fails in different ways in different societies. Nevertheless, after our paper “In search of Homo economicus” in 2001 in the American Economic Review, we continued to search for him. Eventually, we did find him. He turned out to be a chimpanzee. The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments. So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.

Scientists Discover What Economists Haven’t Found: Humans
by D S Wilson and J Henrich, 2016

Juan Camilo Cardenas’ work illustrates the counterproductive effects of the individualistic and competitive W.E.I.R.D. conception of “self”. At the risk of over-simplification, psychiatry tells us what is “wrong” with individuals from within a broken hypernormative frame and through a medical lens, and then psychology offers “help”, by telling people what they want to hear to feel better about themselves, to better cope within a fundamentally broken social operating model.

Designing filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years

If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.

The language of evolutionary design encapsulates and formalises the timeless principles that can be traced back to the earliest rock paintings and diagrammatic representations, which enabled important knowledge to be transmitted reliably in otherwise largely oral human scale cultures over tens of thousands of years. Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

As events beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, Autistic people are rediscovering the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and co-creating beautiful works of art as an antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.

Latest posts by Jorn Bettin (see all)

Related Articles

3 Responses

  1. The industrialized paradigm is poisonous because all cultural change is systematically channeled into frenzied activity within an established and fundamentally flawed paradigm, not because there is a lack of cultural dynamism.

Talk to us... what are you thinking?

Skip to content
%d bloggers like this: