Modern society is filled with references to the speed at which change happens—mainstream music moves from rock, to pop, to rap, seemingly overnight; dress hemlines go up or down with the seasons. But some of that might be an illusion, the researchers with this new effort contend, because of the way we view change. They suggest that human cultural change is just as slow-moving as biological change—and it is because most cultural artifacts are subjects to both stabilizing and directional forces.
Ben Lambert et al. The pace of modern culture, Nature Human Behaviour (2020).
Here we investigate the evolutionary dynamics of several kinds of modern cultural artefacts—pop music, novels, the clinical literature and cars—as well as a collection of organic populations. In contrast to the general belief that modern culture evolves very quickly, we show that rates of modern cultural evolution are comparable to those of many animal populations. Using time-series methods, we show that much of modern culture is shaped by either stabilizing or directional forces or both and that these forces partly regulate the rates at which different traits evolve. We suggest that these forces are probably cultural selection and that the evolution of many artefact traits can be explained by a shifting-optimum model of cultural selection that, in turn, rests on known psychological biases in aesthetic appreciation. In sum, our results demonstrate the deep unity of the processes and patterns of cultural and organic evolution.