The Scientific Method within Cultural Evolution
By merging the paths of cultural rituals and scientific theories, we illuminate the scientific underpinnings of cultural phenomena
Culture, the invisible science.
Culture is an ongoing natural experiment. It’s a complex interplay of ideas, practices, and creations. Continuously shaped by the forces of trial and error. Innovation and tradition.
Our evolving cultural norms have been tested and retested through social interaction and environmental adaptation. As a result, this cultural evolution bears a striking resemblance to the foundational belief system that underpins all science and our universal consensus around its findings: the scientific method.
The scientific method is a deliberate process characterized by systematic observation, hypothesis formulation, rigorous testing, and subsequent refinement. At the heart of this comparison lies the iterative nature of both domains —science and culture— each advancing through cycles of development and reevaluation. As we delve into this examination, we explore the dynamic interplay between established customs and emergent practices, analyzing how cultures adapt and refine their collective ethos over time, paralleling the way scientific hypotheses are critically assessed and iteratively honed by the empirical evidence gathered through research and experimentation.
Let’s consider this premise: In the unfolding narrative of human civilization, culture emerges as a series of hypotheses —collective conjectures about the best ways to live, interact, and make sense of the world. These social constructs are not static. They are propositions set forth by individual people, by their societies, subject to the scrutiny of lived experience and the pressures of environmental and societal demands. With each generation, these cultural hypotheses undergo a natural selection of sorts, refined by the reality of daily life. A practice that aids survival, enhances cooperation, fosters social recognition where the acquisition of privileges is reiterated and reinforced, much like a successful scientific hypothesis is upheld by consistent experimental results. Conversely, those cultural practices that do not effectively resonate with or adapt to the shifting landscapes of society are questioned, reformed, or discarded —paralleling the scientific process where theories are adjusted in the light of new evidence or discarded when they no longer provide adequate explanations.
So, as a result, cultural practices undergo a continuous trial by fire, akin to the rigorous testing of scientific hypotheses in the lab. These rituals, traditions, and norms are not mere relics. They are active experiments playing out in the ever-shifting laboratory of human interaction. Their results are measured not in sterile data points but in the lived experiences and stories that reverberate through the community. Anecdotal evidence, personal narratives and collective histories of a people, hold a place of considerable influence in this process. It is through the retelling of experiences —successes, failures, joys, and sorrows— that a practice is validated within its cultural setting. This evidence, while subjective in nature, is no less potent than empirical data, as it carries the weight of human cognitive evolution and social impact, driving the acceptance or rejection of cultural practices in a manner parallel to the validation or refutation of scientific theories through experimental data.
Cultures, in their vast and varied expressions across lands and communities are the dynamic embodiment of these testing grounds that continuously absorb and refine practices. Imagine that a person, somewhere in a city, within a friend group, presents an innovative kind of behavior (expressed through either vocabulary, a dress code, a professional life choice or any other type of experimental hypothesis related to cultural experimentation). If their choice (the hypothesis) leads to good outcomes (confirming the hypothesis in a set environment), chances are that other people within that friend group will experiment with those choices in very similar experimental environments. They may for example choose to wear similar clothes or use similar words, to see if in their case too the experiment works out. If the mimicry is successful in the same environment (their friend group or city) and yields the same results (praise, popularity, privileges, joy or any other positive outcomes), then the results of the experiment have been successfully repeated and the experiment can start being perceived as viable and validated. We can go with this analogy even further by perceiving opinions of others as the hypotheses being submitted to a system of peer review. People do, people repeat what others do, then people discuss it and open horizons for further alterations and further innovative experimentational grounds. This is how trends evolve, morphing over time into cultural norms and societal patterns. And when the experiments fail, leading to negative results and undesirable consequences, the hypothesis can be reviewed, tweaked, corrected, or considered in relations to a new environment, more suitable for the nature of that experiment (like for example when we decide to switch jobs, to better fit with our peers). When these types of natural hypotheses fail continuously due to skewed perceptions of reality, orchestrated communication channels or breakages in the natural flow of ideological evolution (mostly through oppressive, authoritative or restrictive environments, technologies or regimes), the cultural experiment can go very wrong, as its environment is not suited to contain the nature of the experiment. In a lab this would result in explosions or other safety hazards, but in our societies, within our cultural communities, this results in uprisings, in cascading negative consequences and potentially in a rise in violence, destruction and harm. These are very normal and predictable patterns, that can be easily guided with wisdom when we reckon with the inherent natural reality of the evolutionary process of culture, and reckon with its self-regulating power that works best when individuals can live in a free and safe world.
This process of cultural hypotheses and results mirrors the scientific method so uncannily, in a way where societies, much like scientists, evaluate the outcomes of their ‘experiments’—whether they be social norms, rituals, or institutional practices —and integrate the successful ones into the fabric of everyday life. Cultural syncretism is the embodiment of this process, reflecting how societies adapt and evolve by selectively blending elements from different traditions. Just as a scientific theory is refined when new data informs its development, cultural practices undergo a similar refinement. Through the exchange of ideas and the collision of worldviews, cultures synthesize new practices that better suit the evolving needs and values of individual people, echoing the scientific pursuit of ever more accurate theories that explain our reality.
If we look at “cultural anomalies” —those beliefs, practices, or traditions that, according to popular opinion, deviate from the norm— we can see how in fact they serve a critical function in the evolution of societies. Different, or simply novel patterns of behavior can act as catalysts for reassessment and change, challenging the status quo and compelling communities to re-evaluate their cultural axioms. Just as anomalies in scientific data can lead to paradigm shifts —overturning established theories and birthing revolutionary ideas— so too can cultural outliers inspire a reimagining of societal norms and values. These behaviors straying away from cultural expectations can come from multiple sources: the advances in sciences and the resulting ideological understanding of the world and our place in the universe is a major one (especially relating to how they impact our religious or introspective belief systems), but it can also come from the creative rebellion of artists, the innovative visions of leaders and engineers, or the introduction of foreign concepts through interaction with other cultures. When these novelties resonate with a society, they can incite a period of intense cultural introspection and debate, eventually leading to an evolution of practices. It’s through this dynamic process that cultures, like scientific theories, are refined, innovated and transformed.
The tension between cultural relativity and scientific universalism is a profound one, touching the core of our understanding of human knowledge. Cultural relativity suggests that the values, practices, and beliefs of a society must be understood within their own context, holding that there is no absolute standard of right or wrong, better or worse. Every cultural ‘experiment’ is thus deeply entwined with its local environment, shaped by unique historical, geographical, and social factors. In stark contrast, scientific laws seek universal claims, aspiring to principles that hold true regardless of local contexts. The laws of physics, for instance, are considered to be constant across cultures and geographies. This pursuit of universalism in science creates a friction with the preconceived deeply contextual nature of cultural practices. The scientific method’s demand for replicability and predictability often clashes with the nuanced and multifaceted reality of cultural experiences. But let us not forget that humans too belong to universal realities in many ways. After all, our place within the reality of natural evolution, our biology and the ecosystem we need to survive are all universal certainties. So, while we may consider some aspects of culture as relative and highly circumstantial, let us not forget that the vast majority of our cultural norms and behaviors are de facto universal. And here we can also pinpoint the unifying root of all cultures on our planet: the culture of human nature, linked to our universal human needs and the culture of the physical reality from which we evolved —the physics of nature and the interconnectedness of our ecosystems.
Understanding this dichotomy is essential in recognizing the limitations and scopes of both cultural insight and scientific understanding. While scientific laws can explain the physical world, cultural knowledge provides the framework through which humans evolve biologically and move around the world while societal cultural layers interpret and give meaning to those changes and migratory patterns within their own context. The interplay between these perspectives is where much of the complexity of modern life resides, and where the richness of human diversity can be most fully appreciated.
We could argue that from a civilizational perspective, wisdom and consensus serve as cornerstones in both the evolution of cultural practices and the establishment of scientific paradigms. In cultural contexts, wisdom embodied by authority figures —be their elders, leaders, or influential creators—often set the standards for what is desirable, guiding the collective behavior of a society. Their endorsement or rejection can significantly influence the trajectory of a cultural ‘experiment’, bolstering its adoption or hastening its obsolescence. In the realm of science, authority often comes in the form of expert consensus, which is established through peer review and replication of results. This consensus acts as a gatekeeper, determining which theories become part of the established body of scientific knowledge. The good thing is that through specialized niches, both scientific and cultural, authority can spring out from an ever-growing number of directions. However, it’s important to recognize that both cultural and scientific establishments, especially in less diverse or interdisciplinary environments, can be resistant to change. Authority and consensus often maintain the status quo, inhibiting innovation when they are overly rigid or when they stifle dissenting views. Yet, both systems have mechanisms for evolution: culture through shifts in societal values and science through paradigm shifts that occur when old theories can no longer accommodate new data. Authority figures can choose to be either catalysts for change or rigid conservators of tradition, while consensus can challenge either, and make us evolve to accept new ideas that were once considered heretical, or help us refute ideas that are somewhat nonsensical. Understanding how authority and consensus interact and evolve in both domains provides insight into the processes by which human knowledge and practice develop over time.
Ultimately, this is the nature of life and the evolving reality of our norms. A dance with novelties in new environments, continuously tested and challenged. The transmission of cultural knowledge through dialogue, storytelling, apprenticeship, ritual, and observation is a complex mechanism that carves out what we perceive as our cultural legacies and our community norms. A bundled perception of a lengthy process, which may have been disregarded by many over generation as pertaining to the vague domain of “humanities”, but who may now find meaning in this analogy, seeing finally how culture is truly akin to the peer review, publication system and research data bases that underpin scientific knowledge dissemination. Just as scientific findings are scrutinized before publication, cultural knowledge is typically vetted through time-honored processes to ensure its value and accuracy before being passed on. This cultural ‘publication’ happens in an informal manner: through the evolving forms of media, through ceremonies, communal activities, or oral traditions where knowledge is shared and taught. The ‘peer review’ is the community’s collective approval and continued practice of these traditions, ensuring they are worth transmitting. In science, peer review serves to validate research, a process of collective agreement by experts that makes a piece of work robust and credible enough to be added to the scientific corpus. Both systems aim to preserve and propagate valuable knowledge: science through journals and conferences, and culture through communal engagement and participation. The goal is to ensure that important information and practices are not lost, and that they are taught or disseminated in a way that maintains their integrity over time. The intergenerational transmission of culture, like the scientific method, thus ensures that these ‘experiments’ are repeatable and that the knowledge derived from them remains accessible and actionable for future generations.
If we dive further, we can also see that in both culture and science, the interplay between innovation and tradition is a delicate balance of the known versus the unknown. Cultural innovation introduces new practices, ideas, or artifacts that may at first seem discordant with tradition. Over time however, these innovations are tested —socially, practically, and sometimes spiritually— against the backdrop of established customs. Similarly, in science, novel hypotheses must withstand the scrutiny of existing theories, which serve as the bedrock of our understanding. This process of cultural innovation mirrors the scientific quest for new knowledge too. Because just as scientific theories are rigorously tested and must work within the bounds of what is already known to be true, cultural innovations are subject to the judgment of the community and their compatibility with existing social norms and values. Innovations in both realms must demonstrate their utility and their ability to coexist with or enhance the established order. The persistence of tradition in culture acts as a control variable, a constant against which change can be measured. In science, the control is the body of empirical evidence that supports current theories. Both systems require a proof of concept: for cultural practices to become ingrained, they must prove their worth over time; for scientific theories to be accepted, they must be validated through experimentation and evidence. In the end, the most enduring cultural practices, like the most enduring scientific theories, are those that successfully integrate the old with the new, weaving innovation into the fabric of tradition without tearing it apart, unless the tradition itself tears apart fundamental laws of nature that are universal truths that unite us all. And this, this is a truth that we must always remember. With every new cultural directions that arise before us, with every new generation that does something we consider weird, instead of judging them through the lens of our civilizational norms, we must look at their inherent place in respect to our universal cultural aspects (our human nature, our inherent desire to evolve in ways that allow us to live in safety from one another and the evolution of our ecosystems that guarantee out survival and shape our future). This is important, as it allows us to make the difference between what is the actual expected and logical “norm” of inherently human aspirations, and how these can serve as a compass that can untangle many historically justified cultural inconsistencies. This balance of both self-regulating evolution but also guardianship of the fabric of our physical reality rooted in our constantly improving scientific certainties ensures the evolution and advancement of both cultural practices and scientific understanding.
Both scientifically rooted and ethically driven considerations in cultural and scientific practices are foundational to how we progress and adapt as a society. Culturally, indigenous wisdom often embodies a deep understanding of living in harmony with the environment, reflecting ethics that prioritize sustainability and community well-being. Take, for instance, the concept of “Ubuntu” from Southern Africa, which translates to “I am because we are.” This philosophy emphasizes a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity, an ethical framework that could inform our global approach to collective problems. Culturally speaking, many indigenous societies offer amazing frameworks of ethics that is deeply integrated with their way of life. Another example is the Native American concept of “Seven Generations” stewardship, which compels current generations to live and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. This long-term perspective inherently promotes sustainability and counters the often short-term thinking found in much of modern society.
In the realm of science on the other hand, the ethics of practice are informed by a growing understanding of our neurological and biological underpinnings. Neuroscience reveals the plasticity of our brains, emphasizing the importance of our environment and experiences in shaping who we are. This knowledge imposes an ethical duty on societal structures to nurture the brains and minds of their citizens – from the formative early years through lifelong learning. Combining indigenous knowledge with neuroscience, we can appreciate the universal importance of early childhood care practices found in various indigenous cultures, which often focus on the development of secure attachment and community bonding. These practices are aligned with scientific findings on the critical nature of the early years for brain development, as well as the importance of larger groups of people needed by every child, as they hold essential lessons for creating nurturing environments that are beneficial across cultures. We also now understand that our brains are wired for empathy and social cooperation. The release of oxytocin during social bonding activities enhances our ability to trust and collaborate with others. This biological predisposition towards cooperative behavior underpins ethical frameworks across cultures and has implications for how we structure our societal norms and laws. Further, In the realm of behavioral biology, consider the phenomenon of reciprocal altruism observed in many animal species, where individuals perform acts of altruism toward unrelated individuals, with an expectation of future reciprocation. This natural tendency towards cooperation for mutual benefit is reflected in human practices such as communal farming or sharing of resources, which have been central to survival in many traditional societies. Here, both cultural and scientific explorations can inform how we construct ethical systems that honor individual freedom while promoting communal good.
When considering the ethical implementation of technology on the other hand, one might look at the CRISPR gene-editing technology. While the scientific community has made significant advances, the ethical debate hinges on questions of consent, long-term effects, and the potential for creating social imbalances. The Indigenous principle of considering future generations provides a valuable ethical lens through which we can view such scientific progress, urging caution and thorough contemplation of long-term consequences. Throughout history, when cultural practices or technologies have outpaced our ethical understanding, we often witness a period of reckoning and realignment. The Industrial Revolution, for instance, led to exploitation and environmental degradation, and as a result, now we have to reckon with the necessary movement related to human right, labor rights, equity and environmentalism, all the while finding a way to create industries that break with these cycles of extractive harm.
The culmination of these interconnected examples points towards a universal truth: ethical considerations are not static but evolve as our understanding deepens, both scientifically and culturally. It is through this evolution that society can aim to ensure the well-being of current and future generations, fostering an environment where scientific advancement and cultural practices are conducted responsibly and with foresight. The end of this section should leave readers with a sense of responsibility and optimism —a belief that through the confluence of diverse cultural ethics and scientific knowledge, humanity can navigate the complexities of modern life and emerge with practices that honor both our shared heritage and our individual dignity. I would also like to leave you with words of caution: to be warry of ideological views that push for scientific, economic and technological progress while stifling or impeding cultural innovation, by vilifying its experimental and legitimate evolving nature. By intertwining these perspectives of experimental optimism and universally graspable roots for the analysis of cultural paradigms, we create a narrative that respects our diverse origin stories and shared human legacy, promoting a vision for a future that is as scientifically informed as it is culturally rich and ethically sound.
In our exploration of the parallels between cultural evolution and scientific methodology, we’ve traversed a landscape where human curiosity, ethical consideration, and iterative learning converge. The final synthesis of these ideas illuminates a profound recognition: that the continual refinement of our cultural and scientific practices is not just a methodological pursuit but an intertwined ethical imperative. Championing scientific and technological innovation without reckoning with the purely scientific and necessary nature of cultural experimentation, freedom and evolution would present dangerous grounds, most likely resulting in dystopian outcomes. As we stand on the precipice of future innovations and cultural shifts, the understanding that ethics and cultural diversification must evolve alongside our technological and social advancements is paramount. Some may call cultural innovation as “woke” ideologies, without realizing that they are in fact witnessing the embodiment of scientific methods applied to culture. Some of it will lead to amazing new ideas and cultural movements, while some of the experiments will self-regulate or review their hypotheses. Most likely culture will also universally converge towards more clearly understood common grounds, thanks to the shared understanding of scientific consensus regarding our biological existence and the fabric of universal reality rooted in physics. The biological underpinnings of our cooperative nature, mirrored in the ethos of indigenous wisdom and the collaborative spirit of scientific inquiry, underscore the necessity of an ethical framework that is both inclusive and anticipatory of these predictable changes. By fostering a global society that values this interplay, we encourage a future where cultural wisdom and scientific insight are not in competition but in conversation —guiding us toward decisions that honor the lessons of the past while responsibly stewarding universal truths and the future of our collective potential. It is within this dynamic and reflective space that humanity can hope to craft a legacy worthy of our ancestors lives, that of our own potential and that of the generations that will follow us — a legacy of interconnected generational knowledge, telling us the stories of our experiments through time, distilling cultural norms to reflect our most noble endeavors, reflecting the best of what it means to be human.
This is what is possible. This is the potential within our grasp. Now, it is the choices we make, to either constrain or liberate our cultural and scientific paradigms, that will determine the likelihood of this hopeful future becoming our reality.