Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

1. Introduction

This book describes a new interdisciplinary theory for explaining cultural change. In contrast to traditional evolutionist theories, the present theory stresses the fact that a culture can evolve in different directions depending on its life conditions.

Cultural selection theory explains why certain cultures or cultural elements spread, possibly at the expense of other cultures or cultural elements which then disappear. Cultural elements include social structure, traditions, religion, rituals, art, norms, morals, ideologies, ideas, inventions, knowledge, technology, etc. This theory is inspired by Charles Darwin's idea of natural selection, because cultural elements are seen as analogous to genes in the sense that they may be reproduced from generation to generation and they may undergo change. A culture may evolve because certain cultural elements are more likely to spread and be reproduced than others, analogously to a species evolving because individuals possessing certain traits are more fit than others to reproduce and transmit these traits to their offspring.

In a society with a free market economy, competition plays a major role in determining the course of social and economic evolution. Selection theory is indispensible for analyzing this process because the result of each competition event is a selection. The same applies to democratic elections. Each election is a selection event, and an analysis of the selection criteria is necessary for a scientific analysis of the development of a democratic society. In primitive societies without a monetary system and without democracy, the course of development may be determined by other political systems or by the outcomes of conflict and war - still different kinds of selection. Obviously, a systematic application of selection theory in social science is long overdue!

A cultural selection process can be viewed from two opposing angles. Assume, for example, that we ask two different persons why a particular pop song has become a hit. Person A says it is because people like that kind of music, while B says it is because this song has a catchy tune. In reality they are both saying the same thing, because a catchy tune is indeed defined as a tune people like. But A is seeing the selection of this song as due to a characteristic of the persons: they have a taste for this tune, while B sees it as a characteristic of the song: it has a tune that matches people's taste. A's interpretation can be called anthropocentric while B's point of view is the opposite. We can take the non-anthropocentric view even further by comparing pop songs or fashions or other cultural phenomena with parasites competing for access to people's minds. Of course a song or a fashion does not have some kind of magic soul or a will to become popular - this is just a metaphor which turns out to be very useful for explaining certain irrational or unintended social phenomena.

Humans have a peculiar ability to rationalize unconscious motives, i.e. to invent rational reasons justifying their irrational behavior. Most actions therefore seem rational and planned - even if they are not. Not all social changes are planned and decided on in a democratic manner to the benefit of all. Unconscious motives in the social participants, unintended consequences of rational choices, unintended macroscopic consequences of the sum of the actions of many individuals, uncontrollable consequences of conflicts, ecological factors, economic competition, and many other mechanisms influence the evolution of societies in directions that may be unforeseen, and that may not be beneficial to everyone. The powerful paradigm of cultural selection theory challenges traditional sociology by its superior ability to explain such irrational factors in social evolution.

Phenomena like religion, ideology, politics, morals, and norms play a fundamental role in any culture, and the study of cultural change is impossible without a study of changes in these rules of conduct and philosophies of life. You cannot describe a belief or ideology in its own terms without loosing the scientific objectivity. It is necessary to achieve a scientific distance - an external viewing-angle - in order to study why a belief system evolves in a certain direction, and in order to compare different belief systems on equal terms. The scientist has to see himself as an atheistic nihilist or as a biologist studying the most peculiar animal on Earth in order to maintain a sufficient degree of objectivity towards different ideologies and philosophies. The non-anthropocentric standpoint may be very helpful here. Unfortunately, we often have a problem accepting this way of thinking because it is incompatible with our anthropocentric worldview. A considerable amount of abstract thinking is needed here.

It is hardly possible to obtain complete objectivity when studying social phenomena. Unfortunately, the acknowledgment of this fact has led several scholars to totally drop the requirement for objectivity, and consciously mingle science with ideology. Feminism and marxism1 are well-known examples. In my opinion, this subjective tendency is dangerous for science, and I will therefore strive towards the highest possible degree of objectivity, especially when studying controversial ideological or religious phenomena.


You will notice that I am combining theories from several different scientific disciplines without any regard to the ideological conflicts that prevail between certain of these disciplines, and without any regard to the fact that some disciplines are 'in' and others are 'out' for ideological reasons.

There is a huge gap between the natural sciences where tradition dictates exactness in models and definitions, and on the other hand the social and humanistic sciences where exact models would be rejected for being reductionistic and for ignoring human diversity and uniqueness. My attempt to combine theories from so different sciences has therefore been quite a challenge. The distance between the exact and the soft sciences is so immense that any compromise between these two points of view will be unacceptable to both parties. Whichever camp the reader is in, (s)he will surely have problems with my concepts and models being either too rigorous and reductionistic, or too sloppy and inexact. This is the price you have to pay for this kind of interdisciplinary research!

The ideal of scientific objectivity notwithstanding, it would be naive of the social scientist to sit back in his ivory tower and ignore any political consequences of his research. The theory presented in this book has important political consequences that need to be discussed. It is necessary, however, to keep a clear head and distinguish between the pure theory and the political discussions to which this theory gives rise. These political discussions are therefore confined to chapter 14.

The idea that cultural inheritance can be the basis of a selection process is almost as old as Darwin's theory of natural selection in biological evolution. Several theorists have independently described the analogy between genetic and cultural evolution, but the further elaboration of this theory has been hampered by a never-ending conflict between different worldviews, and practical applications have so far been few and insignificant. The vacillating history of the theory of cultural selection is described in chapter 2. This chapter also gives an overview of the different theoretical schools that relate to cultural selection. Chapter 2 can be skipped or read later if the reader is not interested in the history of science. Chapter 3 and 4 can not be skipped, however. Chapter 3 explains the fundamental concepts of cultural selection theory, and chapter 4 elaborates the theory into a new model explaining why different cultures evolve in very different directions. The succeeding chapters are applications of the theory to different historical as well as contemporary cultural phenomena. A concluding discussion is found in chapter 13.


1. The rules for using capital letters in the english language are rather inconsistent, and everybody seems to capitalize whatever they think is important. This approach is incompatible with my striving towards value-neutrality. As a consequence of this, I have decided to capitalize only names of persons, places, and organizations (including mythological names), but not concepts derived from names, such as 'darwinist', 'christianity', or 'british'.