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20210925 – Cultural Evolution



Here is the author’s formulation:” This book presents a new version of modernization theory – Evolutionary Modernization theory – which generates a set of hypotheses that we test against a unique data base: from 1981 to 2014, the World Values Survey and European Values Study carried out hundreds of surveys in more than 100 countries containing over 90 percent of the world’s population.”  The critical point of this theory is that human values are dependent on levels of security and economic development achieved by the people: secure and wealthy people switch to non-materialistic, secular values supportive to self-expression, individualism, and tolerant of others, who are assumed to be friendly and have similar values, while insecure and poor people retain traditional values of in-group solidarity, religion, and defense against others, who are assumed to be hostile and have entirely different values.


Introduction: An Overview of This Book
Here the author presents this book as a look at the new situation in human history. It was the situation when economic development achieved such levels that physical survival is not the primary concern of the vast majority of people anymore.  At least, it is not the case in the developed world. It led to the “shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values – which was part of an even broader shift from Survival values to Self-expression values.”  In this new and secure world, people have the luxury to pursue happiness rather than survival, be tolerant to others, and have a relaxed attitude to just about everything. However, this near paradise condition was brief and is threatening now by increased automatization of everything based on AI. This development brings back insecurity and, in turn, leads to:” High levels of existential security are conducive to a more tolerant, open outlook – but conversely, declining existential security triggers an Authoritarian Reflex that brings support for strong leaders, strong in-group solidarity, rigid conformity to group norms and rejection of outsiders.”

1 Evolutionary Modernization and Cultural Change
The author begins by defining:” Evolutionary Modernization theory – which argues that economic and physical insecurity are conducive to xenophobia, strong in-group solidarity, authoritarian politics and rigid adherence to their group’s traditional cultural norms – and conversely that secure conditions lead to greater tolerance of outgroups, openness to new ideas and more egalitarian social norms.”

The author then refers to the methodology of data collection via surveys.

Classic Modernization Theory and Evolutionary Modernization Theory
Here, the author discusses Modernization theory and repeats his central thesis that evolution optimized people for survival. When survival is practically guaranteed, people move on to develop some new previously non-existing values and direct their effort to achieve these values. 

Converging Evidence of the Importance of Existential Security

Here author reviews the situation when:” Working independently, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists and historians have recently developed strikingly similar theories of cultural and institutional change: they all emphasize the extent to which security from survival threats, such as starvation, war and disease, shape a society’s cultural norms and sociopolitical institutions.”

The Rise of Postmaterialism in the West
Here the author presents the theory of intergenerational value change, which is based on two key hypotheses:

1. A scarcity hypothesis. Virtually everyone values freedom and autonomy, but people give top priority to their most pressing needs. Material sustenance and physical security are closely linked with survival, and when they are insecure, people give top priority to these Materialistic goals; but under secure conditions, people place greater emphasis on Postmaterialist goals such as belonging, esteem and free choice.

2. A socialization hypothesis. The relationship between material conditions and value priorities involves a long time-lag: one’s basic values largely reflect the conditions that prevailed during one’s preadult years, and these values change mainly through intergenerational population replacement.

The author then discusses these hypothesizes and inferences that they lead to in various areas: Cultural Change and Societal Change; Cognition and Emotions as Sources of Value Change; An Alternative Explanation: Rational Choice; Slow and Fast Cultural Change;
At the end of the chapter author presents the following list of significant predictions:

1. When a society attains sufficiently high levels of existential security that a large share of the population grows up taking survival for granted, it brings coherent and roughly predictable social and cultural changes, producing an intergenerational shift from values shaped by scarcity, toward increasing emphasis on Postmaterialist values and Self-expression values.

2. As younger birth cohorts replace older cohorts in the adult population, it transforms the societies’ prevailing values – but with long time-lags. The youngest cohorts have little political impact until they reach adulthood, and even then they are still a small minority of the adult population; it takes additional decades before they become the dominant influence in their society.

3. Intergenerational value change is shaped by short-term period effects such as economic booms or recessions, in addition to population replacement, but in the long run the period effects often cancel each other out, while the population replacement effects tend to be cumulative.

4. Intergenerational value change can eventually reach a threshold at which new norms became socially dominant. At this point, conformist pressures reverse polarity, supporting changes they had formerly opposed and bringing much more rapid cultural change than that produced by population replacement alone.

5. Cultural change is path-dependent: a society’s values are shaped by its entire historical heritage, and not just its level of existential security.

2 The Rise of Postmaterialist Values in the West and the World
The author points out that western societies are switching to postmaterialist values and presents several graphs supporting this idea. Here is one for Western countries:

The author also provides similar data for other world areas where the same process occurs, albeit slower. The author also expresses the belief that younger generations drive this process. It possesses a positive feedback loop that all but guarantees the change happening with the shift in generations.   

3 Global Cultural Patterns
This chapter discusses data obtained from Global Values Surveys that monitored 90% of the world population. The analysis included two main dimensions: Traditional vs. Secular-Rational and Survival vs. Self-Expression. The author provides a sample of questionary that used to separate individuals with “Survival values” from individuals with “Self-Expression values”:

Modernization-Linked Attitudes Tend to Be Enduring and Cross-nationally Comparable
The conclusion is:” Our theory holds that Self-expression values should be strongly correlated with indicators of economic modernization. Although measured at different levels and by different methods, we find remarkably strong linkages between individual-level values and societies’ economic characteristics. Across all available societies, the average correlation between Self-expression values and ten widely used economic modernization indicators, ranging from per capita GDP and mean life expectancy to educational levels

The Self-expression/lndividualism/Autonomy Super-dimension
The author then presents metanalysis demonstrating that the critical factor defining cross nations clustering of values is the Self vs. Group dimension:


The conclusion is that society’s values are predictable based on the economic and overall security position, with individualism characteristic of a wealthy and secure community. That movement nearly always occurs with successful development, and that change is path-dependent.

4 The End of Secularization?
In the first part of this chapter author traces emergence of need in moral god depending on the primary method of production:

However, the author also notes counter-secularization trends: low fertility of secular population vs. high fertility of religious people, the substitution of hierarchically organized religion of agricultural and industrial ages with mixed bag of religious ideas and DIY spirituality of information age.  

5 Cultural Change, Slow and Fast: The Distinctive Trajectory of Norms Governing Gender Equality and Sexual Orientation
In this chapter author discusses characteristics of the process of change and attempts to demonstrate these points:

1) These value changes involve very long time-lags between the onset of the conditions leading to them, and the societal changes they produce. There was a time-lag of 40–50 years between when Western societies first attained high levels of economic and physical security after World War II, and the occurrence of such relevant societal changes as legalization of same-sex marriage.

2) One distinctive set of norms concerning gender equality, divorce, abortion and homosexuality supports a pro-fertility strategy that was essential to the survival of pre-industrial societies but eventually became superfluous. This set of norms is now moving on a trajectory that is distinct from that of other cultural changes.

3) Although basic values normally change at the pace of intergenerational population replacement, the shift from Pro-fertility norms to Individual-choice norms has reached a tipping-point where conformist pressures have reversed polarity and are now accelerating value changes they once resisted, bringing major societal changes such as legalization of same-sex marriage.

The author presents a formal statement for Hypotheses of his Evolutionary Modernization Theory and then empirical data and analysis supporting these hypotheses. For example, here is one of his data sets for Income/Tolerance correlation:

In conclusion, the author notes that slow change in attitudes to sexuality and fertility seems to reach the tipping point when the conformist majority finds it detrimental to maintain old norms of sexuality, which leads to acceleration of changes. For some reason, the author also refers here to xenophobia, noting that high-income countries somehow become not less xenophobic and explain it by very high levels of immigration and terrorism.  The author also cannot help but complain about Trump’s victory in 2016.

6 The Feminization of Society and Declining Willingness to Fight for One’s Country: The Individual-Level Component of the Long Peace
Here the author offers four Hypotheses:

(1) Cross-sectionally, the publics of more developed societies will place more emphasis on Individual-choice values and be less willing to risk their lives in war.

(2) Longitudinally, in societies in which Individual-choice values are most widespread, people’s willingness to risk lives in war will fall most sharply.

(3) In multi-level perspective, individuals who live in societies with widespread Individual-choice values will be less willing to risk their lives in war.

Since historical learning is also an influence on cultural evolution, this adds a fourth hypothesis:

(4) Historically, the former Axis powers’ devastating defeat in World War II sharply diminished their people’s willingness to fight for their country; while the exceptionally strong prevalence of Self-expression values in the Nordic countries led to the emergence of a military primarily geared to peace-keeping missions and developmental aid; this, in turn, led to the emergence of a distinctive and positive view of the role of the military among the Nordic publics, making them more willing to fight for their country.

The author provides some graphs demonstrating changes in willingness to fight generally supportive of presented Hypotheses. However, he is justifiably cautious because of the dynamic character of the issue. He even provides a very relevant point:” These trends are reversible. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in the Eastern Ukraine evoked widespread concern, bringing economic sanctions, capital flight from Russia and impelling Nordic political leaders to reassess the role of their countries’ military forces. But so far, no influential Western leaders – not even the Hawks – have advocated military action against Russia. The norms of the Long Peace continue to prevail for now.”

7 Development and Democracy
The author begins this chapter with the discussion of “democratic recession,” noting that it is not unusual for long-term development.  – one should recall 1930-40 and the tidal wave of fascism and communism. Then he discusses the link between democracy and development and concentrates on the connection between self-expression and effective democracy:

The author also provides a detailed explanation of the graph:” The incongruence between the institutional supply of democracy and the cultural demand for democracy is calculated by subtracting the demand from the supply. In order to measure the incongruence that was present before the Third Wave transition, we use the pre-transition levels of democracy, as measured during 1981–1986, to indicate the supply. To calculate the cultural demand for democracy, we use Self-expression values measured around 1990 as an indication of how strong these values were before the transition.

The more Self-expression values surpass a society’s level of democracy, the greater the unmet demand. In the analysis shown on Figure 7.2, a score of –1 indicates the strongest possible lack of demand for more democracy, while a score of +1 indicates the maximum demand for more democracy. Our sample includes a number of stable Western democracies in which the levels of democracy have been constant since measurement began. These 16 democracies are in an equilibrium where supply and demand for democracy are in balance; accordingly, they are at the zero-point on the incongruence scale. They also are at the zero-point on the vertical dimension, which measures how much change a country experienced in its level of effective democracy from the early 1980s to the late 1990s: since the supply and demand for democracy were in balance, they experienced no change.”

After discussing supply and demand for democracy based on the level of development of society, the author makes an important point that general movement is in the direction of congruence between these two:

The author ends this chapter with a brief discussion of China as an outlier: economic development, in the author’s opinion, created unmet demand for democracy, that in the long run would somehow lead to the democratization of Chinese society, although he admits that there is no sign that it is happening and that he does not believe it could happen while communist party controls security forces.   

8 The Changing Roots of Happiness

Here the author discusses happiness and points out that it is not a set value, maybe even genetic, as usually thought but rather an improvable parameter. His justification:” Extensive empirical evidence indicates that the extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness. From 1981 to 2007, economic development, democratization and rising social tolerance increased the extent to which the people of most countries had free choice in economic, political and social life – leading to higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.” The author presents a graphic expression of empirical results:

The author also discusses the correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction, which is generally between 0 and 0.15, with a significant outlier in China, where the correlation is negative.

In the end, the author provides a summary of the results of path analysis for causal sequences for perceived well-being:

9 The Silent Revolution in Reverse: The Rise of Trump and the Authoritarian Populist Parties
This chapter discusses the rise of populism in the USA and Europe and what the author calls xenophobic and authoritarian movements. The author provides some interesting data demonstrating that Trump’s support is growing with age but limited by class with low- and high-income groups aligning against Trump, while middle-income group supporting:

The author also discusses the shift from economic to non-economic issues in political discourse in western democracies:

At the end of the chapter, the author allocates quite a bit of space to discuss growing inequality and political influence of the upper class, concluding that:” Rising inequality and economic insecurity are already generating powerful political dissatisfaction.”

10 The Coming of Artificial Intelligence Society
In this last chapter, the author looks at the future impact of mass implementation of AI and sees quite a bleak picture of increased inequality and practical destruction of the middle class. Here is the graph of trends that point in this direction:

All this looks very scary to the author, and he sees signs of impending danger in such events as the Trump election and presidency. So, he is looking for a political solution to substitute the old New Deal Democratic coalition with the new incarnation of an ever bigger government that will reallocate income more fairly. The author believes that it could be done by converting stupid middle- and lower-class people who voted in mass for Trump into believing that they will be much better off if they vote for democrats. The foundation of this conversion and the goal of big benevolent government supported by unchallengeable majority will be increased recognition of unfair distribution of wealth when most wealth goes to already rich with consequent mass demand for redistribution, and by “Developing well-designed programs to attain this goal will be a crucial task for social scientists and policy-makers during the next 20 years.”


This book is fascinating, with a significant amount of interesting empirical data. I agree that values change with the increase in wealth and security. Still, I think that author underestimates to what extent the parameters of wealth and security are relative to the wealth and safety of others. For example, an American who lost a good job and had to live on handouts because the company shipped this job to China or hired an illegal immigrant may drop his values of tolerance and openness to others.

Despite this underestimation, the author clearly understands that shifting the population of Western democracies from wealth and security to poverty and insecurity that will hugely accelerate by implementing AI does not sound suitable for continuing the status quo. However, the author’s suggested solution: an ever bigger government that redistributes more wealth according to the wise advice of social scientists is not workable. It is because of the relative character of wealth and security. The people who cannot act on their own and achieve what they want will not accept some Universal Basic Income that makes them equal in poverty. It is especially true when the top levels of the society, from government-made billionaires to well-paid social scientists, time after time waste resources on implementing costly and non-working social programs. Obviously, nobody knows what lies ahead, but I am afraid that it could be as funny and entertaining as the Russian or French revolutions.   

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