Last week, a young man walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire on the congregation. Nine people died that day from what was later revealed to be a racially motivated hate crime by the 21-year-old Dylann Roof—the most recent in a rising wave of mass shootings in the United States.

This pattern of excessive gun violence stirs endless debate about what brings about this unique form of American Exceptionalism. Why is it that the United States stands out? What are the key cultural, political, and economic features that make us so prone to grab our (readily accessible) guns, walk out into public places and kill our fellow citizens? For the good people of Charleston there is an additional question lingering in the public psyche, what is going to be needed for us to get beyond the long history of racism that continues to plague our society to the present day?

These are questions for the field of cultural evolution. They are exactly the kinds of practical considerations that the newly forming Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution (SSCE) will address. Few people know that a mature science exists to explain how societies become the way they are and how the process of social change actually works. The SSCE is not yet in place so there is at present no authoritative body of expertise we can go to for answers when mass shootings take place.

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So how might an SSCE panel (like a medical review board or expert committee from other sciences) respond to a crisis like the wave of mass shootings? It would be comprised of researchers in fields like cultural psychology, evolutionary biology, and political history—so there would be guidance regarding the way social norms are established in a society, where the human tendencies for tribal behavior come from in our evolutionary history, and why certain models of governance are unable to respond to problems when their structures are ill-suited to the task at hand.

These kinds of insights would tell us that our polarized, two-party political system is too divided around racial “wedge issues” and too corrupted by special interests like the gun lobby to be capable of delivering sensible gun laws (even when the majority of Americans want them). They would help us understand how economic conditions and media reporting influence how people think about race as a tribal identity. Historic patterns of prior violence passed down through the decades would be acknowledged for the role they play in creating the conditions for this kind of event to be “selected for” by present-day culture.

In other words, mass shootings are a problem that cultural evolution can help us solve. They arise through evolving patterns of social history that can only be explained with an integrated perspective that combines all levels of social change—from the inner workings of the human mind through to the large-scale governing structures that guide our political lives.

I won’t presume to have the answer for how mass shootings can be brought to an end. That is beyond the scope of this article. What I hope to convey here is that a body of knowledge already exists that can give us the best hope for finding that answer. You are invited to join us on this learning journey. Become a founding member and help us define the ‘Grand Challenges’ of cultural evolution that the SSCE will attempt to solve in the months and years ahead.

Systematic violence is one promising candidate worthy of making this list of grand challenges. It is my belief that we have all the pieces of information that will be needed—spread out across the many siloes of research in the fields that comprise the study of cultural evolution. What is needed now is a coordinated effort to bring it all together and apply it to the stark problems of the world outside the Ivory Tower where it is desperately needed right now.

Are you with me? Let’s get started.

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Published On: June 24, 2015

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer

Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.


  • Bruce Preville says:

    Alabama (!) gov lowers Confederate flag in state Capitol. This is how quickly transformative change occurs. An indicator of a shift in social inclusion, one of the principles of humanity’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Bruce,

      You’re right that we are in the turmoil of a rapid change process right now. One thing I’d say from the perspective of cultural evolution is that this turbulent pattern is what complexity scientists would call a phase transition where deep controversy and strong emotions are catalyzing a rapid change in the social norms around racist symbols and their connections to narratives about the history of the South.

      This complexity science component is relevant because cultures are complex adaptive systems and need to be understood as having nonlinearities, tipping points, cascade effects, and other dynamics patterns within them.

      It is so important that cultural change be understood in this way for it to be guided toward desirable social outcomes — in this case, bringing much needed healing to the traumas of historic violence against people of color in the United States

  • Joseph Gilbert says:

    Culture is created by spoken-word language. The effects of the sounds (phones) of the word serve to inform us subliminally of the effect/meaning of the thing named by it.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Joseph,

      Not only are word sounds important, at a much deeper level the semantic structures of language have profound effects on how events are perceived and understood.

      Language matters! 😉

  • david ronfeldt says:

    What catches my eye are your references to “where the human tendencies for tribal behavior come from in our evolutionary history” and “how people think about race as a tribal identity”.

    Tribes are a cardinal form of social organization that lies behind social / cultural evolution — in my view, the first cardinal form, but also a forever form since advanced societies still need and generate positive tribal bases of various kind(s). But tribalism often generates dark as well as bright sides.

    The dark sides show up particularly in reversions to extreme tribalism that turn violent, brutish, demonic. So, I think you are quite right to identify systematic violence as a grand challenge for your new endeavor. But I’d add that understanding the tribal form and its myriad expressions (bright and dark, preternatural and modern, etc.) is a parallel and equally grand challenge. It figures in all the policy concerns you note: mass shootings, racism, gun control, political polarization, media behavior.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      I completely agree, David.

      This qualifies as a grand challenge for cultural evolution in both key areas — basic research into human social organization and our innate tendency to form tribes (which is not going away any time soon!) and in the applied realms of structural oppression and violence (especially where rapid social change makes these reactionary dynamics more turbulent). There is much still to learn here and I would advocate for an “action research” program exploring both basic science and applications through field projects that run concurrently and with considerable exchanges between them.

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    YES! the words we use are extremely important. I agree. Let us examine a word that has just come up in this discussion. The word is “tribal”.

    The term “tribal” evidently means something completely different to many of the commentators here than it does to the people who have studied human cultural evolution in anthropology.

    As I understand it now, most evolutionary biologists and psychologists use the word as a way of naming the dynamic of in-group vs out-group behaviour – and loyalties. The term competition comes up frequently in models of group selection as well.

    So please let us consider the meanings and indeed, the validity of these terms in describing the mechanisms of human organization.

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    David Ronfeldt just explained why this is important… he referred to “the dark sides show up particularly in reversions to extreme tribalism that turn violent, brutish, demonic” and I assume this was in reference to how quickly humans will commit to defending the group to which they see themselves as belonging. Is this what you mean?

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