Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

4. Further development of the model

4.1 The concept of fitness

Fitness is defined as the ability of an occurrence to survive and be reproduced in time and space. It is the imaginary mathematical function that a selection process strives to maximize.

Some evolutionary biologists prefer to use the word adaptive instead of fit in order to avoid the value connotation in the latter term. Unfortunately, the word adaptive may cause confusion between the concepts of adaptedness (adapted state) and adaptivity (ability to adapt to changes in the environment). I will therefore still use the word fitness, but emphasize that no value connotation is intended. A trait that is fit under certain conditions may not necessarily be desirable according to ideological criteria.

The fitness of a replicator (gene or meme) often depends on several different factors. Some of these factors are important because they are responsible for a large part of the variation in fitness, while other factors are less interesting because they have only little influence on the fitness, or because they do not vary significantly within the boundaries of the system being studied. In systems which are too complex to analyze in detail, it may be useful to concentrate on those factors which have the highest effect on fitness. The most important factors define what I call the main selection criteria.

The concept of fitness only makes sense relative to a specified process of reproduction and selection, be it genetic or cultural, and a specific environment. It is important to recognize that fitness is a relative concept, depending on the selection mechanism and external conditions. Different selection conditions can lead the process in different directions, and an examination of the selection criteria is necessary for predicting the direction of evolutionary change. The failure to acknowledge this dependency has led to the often criticized unilinear theories of cultural evolution.

In order to illustrate the relativity of the fitness concept, I am going to give an almost classical example: The habit of tobacco smoking has spread to most of the world because it gives a subjective feeling of pleasure and because it is difficult for the smoker to quit when the unfortunate consequences turn up. But smoking undermines the reproductive health in many ways which reduce the probability of producing healthy children. We must therefore conclude that smoking is promoted by cultural selection but counteracted by genetic selection. Tobacco smoking has a positive fitness in cultural selection but a negative fitness in genetic selection. If we pin down the process of cultural selection into partial processes, such as hedonic selection, rational selection, economic selection, etc., then we will see that the broad label of cultural selection comprises many different mechanisms each pushing in its own direction.

The study of conflicts between different genetic selection mechanisms pushing in different directions has lead to important results in sociobiological theory. A similar study is highly needed in the area of cultural processes, and such a study is exactly the main purpose of this book.

A selection criterion is not the same as a selection mechanism, but it is determined by the selection mechanism and in particular by the external conditions and selective forces working on the system. I will explain what I mean by selection criteria by referring to the example of economic competition. Industrial enterprises may compete to produce the cheapest products of a particular quality. One possible mechanism in this process is that those factories, which use the cheapest sources of energy, manpower, and other resources, outcompete less efficient producers which then go bankrupt and disappear. A more efficient mechanism is that intelligent managers consciously seek the cheapest resources and production methods, thus avoiding bankruptcy. The latter mechanism is faster than the former, but they both lead the evolution in the same direction because they have the same selection criteria: cheap production. Knowing the selection criteria without knowing the mechanism we may predict the direction of evolution, but not its speed.

Before elaborating further on cultural mechanisms, I will make a necessary digression to genetic selection theory to explain the various selection mechanisms and fitness criteria known in that discipline.


4.2 Genetic selection models

Table 1 shows a schematic outline of genetic selection models and the corresponding fitness criteria.


Process Mechanism Fitness criterion Result
1. Individual selection The individual is working for its own survival and reproduction Reproduction and survival of the individual Effective reproduction, egoism
2. Kin selection The individual is helping relatives The survival and reproduction of the individual and its closest kin Family sentiment, nepotism
3. Group selection The individual is working for its group Survival, growth, and fission of the group Loyalty to group, altruism
4. Reciprocal selection Friends contribute mutually to each other's benefit The survival of both partners co-operation when profitable to both parts; gratitude
5. Sexual selection The individual chooses the most attractive mating partner Ability to select the best mate or to be selected Display of attractive traits
Table 1. Genetic selection models.

Explanation of the different mechanisms:

Individual selection
This is the simplest selection model and the basic idea of darwinism. It may be explained as everybody's struggle for his own life and reproduction, regardless of which effect his strategy may have on everybody else.
Kin selection
A gene which makes its bearer help his nearest relatives survive will, according to this model, gain in prevalence because there is a considerable probability that the relatives carry the same gene. From the point of view of the selfish gene, it makes no difference whether its own bearer survives or somebody else carrying an identical gene survives. The more distant the relationship is with a relative, the lower the probability that the relative carries the same gene. Consequently, it pays more to help close relatives than distant relatives in terms of promoting one's own genes. The kin selection model has been important for explaining the social behavior of ants and bees, but it is also applicable to other animals, including humans. This model has been used to explain family sentiments and nepotism. The tendency of a gene to spread by the reproduction of the bearer and its relatives, is called inclusive fitness (E.O. Wilson 1975).
Group selection
The kin selection argument may be extended to bigger endogamous groups, where there is a high likelihood that all members of the group carry the same gene. Imagine an animal species living in groups where there is a very low migration of animals between groups. If the survival of the group as a whole and its ability to spawn new groups is dependent on the willingness of the group members to cooperate and help each other, then these behavior traits will be promoted by group selection. If group selection is strong enough, it may lead to behaviors that reduce the individual fitness of its bearer but increases the group fitness. This phenomenon is called altruism. An extreme example of altruism is the willingness of an individual to sacrifice his life in order to defend his group. (E.O. Wilson 1975, Wynne-Edwards 1986).

Group selection theory includes several sub-models, depending on how groups are extinguished and how new groups are formed (Boorman & Levitt 1980, Mayo & Gilinsky 1987). There is a long standing controversy among sociobiologists over how strong or weak group selection is compared to individual selection and kin selection (D.S. Wilson 1983, B.J. Williams 1981, G.C. Williams 1966, 1985).
Reciprocal selection
If two (or more) individuals mutually help each other in such a way that the cooperation is to the benefit of both parties, then any gene that result in such cooperation may under certain circumstances spread (E.O. Wilson 1975, Boorman and Levitt 1980). Wild dogs, for example, profit more from cooperative hunting than from hunting alone, provided that they can agree to share the prey afterwards. The cooperating individuals mutually increase the survival probability of each other, and one may speak of reciprocal fitness. There is, however, a serious complication to this mechanism, namely cheaters who are capitalizing on the benefits of receiving help, but failing to reciprocate the favors. This may lead to the evolution of complicated mechanisms for cheating, detection of cheating, calculating when cheating pays and when it pays better to cooperate, attempts to predict the strategy of others, etc. A theoretical analysis of these complications has lead to new perspectives in the understanding of the human psyche (Trivers 1971, Nesse & Lloyd 1992).
Sexual selection
This mechanism has already been mentioned on page 74. It is about the choice of the best mating partner. The choosing part may evolve a preference for partners that look like they have good genes, and the part being chosen may evolve traits that improve their attractiveness in the eyes of the other part. These traits are not always relevant to the survival and reproduction of the couple. For example, male birds of many species have evolved brilliantly colored feathers and impressive songs because these traits attract the females. And the females, on the other hand, have evolved preferences for the same displays of beauty, not because it contributes to their reproduction, but because this preference increases the chances that their male offspring will inherit the beauty and thus be able to attract females (E.O. Wilson 1975).

I have now explained the most important models for genetic selection in order to illustrate that different selection mechanisms and different fitness criteria can lead the evolution in different directions.


4.3 Genetic r- and K-selection

We will now look at a different classification of evolutionary processes: the distinction between the so called r-selection and K-selection (E.O. Wilson 1975).

If a species lives under conditions where resources are ample so that there are good opportunities for expansion, but where there is also considerable dangers such as predators, then it will pay for this species to use most of its resources on breeding as fast as possible. This is called r-selection. The r is the mathematical symbol for the rate of reproduction. r-selection causes the evolution of small organisms growing fast and breeding fast. Examples are mice and insects.

The opposite of r-selection is K-selection. This is what happens when a species lives in an overcrowded environment where the population is limited by the available resources rather than by predation. The capital K is a mathematical symbol for carrying capacity, i.e. the maximum number of individuals that the resources in a given habitat can continually sustain. K-selection leads to the evolution of big animals which breed slowly and utilize the given resources optimally, and which invest a considerable proportion of their resources in the care of their sparse offspring. K-selection is found in those animals that come last in a food-chain, such as whales, elephants, and humans.

The r/K-scale has also been widely used for classifying reproductive strategies. An r-strategy is the strategy of an animal which breeds fast and produces numerous small offspring, but does not care for its offspring. A K-strategy involves late breeding, the production of few big young, and a diligent care for the sparse offspring. The r-strategy is advantageous when predation or other disturbances limit the population below the carrying capacity of the environment, so that there is always plenty of food. The K-strategy is the optimal strategy when the environment is crowded and the population size is limited by the scarcity of food or other resources.

The r/K-theory has been criticized because its theoretical foundation is over-simplistic, and because most of the variation in the parameters which are assumed to be connected with the r/K-scale is found to be a variation between lineages rather than between species in the same lineage or variation within the same species (Stearns 1992). A satisfactory theoretical explanation of the connection between various traits is sometimes lacking, especially in the case of K-selection (Boyce 1984).

However, even critics of the theory have to admit that the theory has merits:

"Enough people have found it a useful framework in which to interpret their observations that it must contain an element of truth. The problem is to identify that element." (Stearns 1992).

The theoretical difficulties notwithstanding, there remains a significant correlation between the important traits, even when factors which might be seen as confounding are corrected for (Stearns 1992), and there have been several attempts to improve the model in order to bring theory in accordance with observations (Boyce 1984, Taylor et al. 1990, Kozlowski & Janczur 1994).

I will argue that the explanatory power of the r/K-theory is easier to account for when the theory is re-interpreted in terms of selection criteria. When the population size is small due to predation or other adversities, but food and other resources are plentiful, then the main selection criterion will obviously be the quantity of offspring. The optimal reproductive strategy will be to breed as fast as possible and produce as many young as possible, rather than spending resources on growing. In the opposite situation, where the population size is limited only by the carrying capacity of the environment, there will be a fierce competition for food, and the animals should be expected to develop competitive abilities. Body size will often be a decisive factor in the competition with conspecifics, and the optimal strategy will therefore be to spend more resources on growing big and fewer resources on breeding. The young are necessarily smaller than the adults and therefore have a disadvantage in the competition for food unless they are helped by their parents. Hence the evolution of parental care, and hence the production of few big young rather than many small. The process may be seen as self-amplifying because big animals are less vulnerable to predation and therefore more likely to be limited by the availability of food and other resources than by predation.

By re-interpreting the r/K-theory in terms of selection criteria here, I have made it more intuitively acceptable. Since the direction of evolution is determined by selection criteria regardless of mechanisms, the sometimes incomplete understanding of the mechanisms behind r- and K-selection becomes less problematic.

The fact that most of the variation in these traits is observed to be a variation between lineages rather than within species, as Stearns (1992) objects, can easily be explained as a consequence of genetic barriers, as defined on page 75. The genetic variation within a species or lineage may be insufficient for adapting to a radical change in r/K-conditions because of genetic barriers. In this case the niche is more likely to be colonized by a different lineage whose traits lie closer to the optimum for that particular niche.


4.4 Cultural selection models

In cultural selection theory, the number of possible models is far greater than for the genetic processes, because both innovation, reproduction, and selection of cultural phenomena may involve many different mechanisms. All these mechanisms may interact with each other in so many complicated ways that a stringent account and classification of possible cultural processes is hardly possible, and it is even more questionable whether this would be a useful approach in applied social research.

Rather than building a taxonomy of cultural processes on selection mechanisms, I have chosen to base my classification on the social forces that give rise to selection, and the corresponding selection criteria. This principle is analogous to the abovementioned distinction between r- and K-selection in genetic evolution. I am using this shortcut not only to avoid intractable mathematical problems, but also because I consider the direction of evolution more interesting than its speed - and the direction of evolution is indeed determined by the selection criteria.

Cultural selection theory is still in its infancy, and what we need at this stage is general models which can provide a broad outlook. The reductionist approach of analyzing the details of one particular cultural selection mechanism among many would not lead to the general understanding of a complex society. Biological evolutionary theory has previously benefitted a lot from the r/K-theory but has now come to a stage where the r/K-theory seems too simplistic. The theory of cultural selection has not yet come to such a stage, and therefore a simplistic model is justified.

As will be evident from the following chapters, this approach has turned out to have an explanatory power far superior to that of previous selection models. Of course, I do not deny that other classification principles may have valuable applications.


4.5 Cultural r- and k-selection

I want to emphasize that the analogy between genetic and cultural selection cannot be used to prove anything about either mechanism - the differences between the two mechanisms are simply too big, as already explained. But the analogy may be useful as a source of inspiration, and should not be regarded as anything else in the following chapters when I am introducing what I will call cultural r- and k-selection (Fog 1997).

Cultural r-selection takes place when a group has substantial opportunities for political and cultural expansion, i.e. to defeat other groups and impose its ideology or culture on them, but at the same time has a great risk of falling victim to the expansion of other groups. In other words, the group is dominated by external conflicts and wars. By group I mean a cluster of people bound together by the feeling of a common collective identity, such as a tribe, a nation state, or a religious sect. Group membership is usually defined by religious, political, or ethnic belonging and is often symbolized by certain distinctive marks (Hogg & Abrams 1988).

Cultural r-selection results in the allocation of a high proportion of the group's resources to the fighting of external wars or conflicts or other collective dangers. The group with the strongest military force and the most effective strategy will win in the process of cultural group selection. In other words, r-selection leads to armament. This armament is not only of a technical kind, but also very much of an ideological and political nature. A strong community spirit is fostered in connection with an ideology saying that the individual exists for the benefit of the community, that the individual should sacrifice himself for the community, that discipline and uniformity are regarded as virtues, that martyrdom is the highest honor, and a strong central government is regarded as a sign of wealth. This kind of ideology and a corresponding political organization will make the strongest forces in political as well as ideological conflicts with neighbor groups, and will therefore have the highest cultural fitness in a situation where cultural r-selection is dominating.

The opposite of cultural r-selection is cultural k-selection, which takes place when a group has no opportunities for cultural expansion and is not threatened by aggression from other groups. This will typically be the case when a group is geographically isolated, for example on a solitary island, or when the cultural differences between a group and its neighbors are small compared to the internal differences within the group. The external conflicts are small or non-existent, and the only conflicts that are significant in selection processes are group-internal conflicts between leaders and subjects, between subcultures, or between individuals.

A strong military force would be a waste of resources in the absence of external conflicts. The population will not accept a despotic government that unifies and disciplines. They will rebel against powerful leaders, and the fights for freedom for everybody will be the dominating conflicts. This will lead to an ideology where society exists for the benefit of the individual, and not vice versa. There will be more freedom of choice for the individual and higher tolerance towards individual differences. The leaders will regard the life and welfare of any individual as important.

The selection criterion for cultural r-selection may be characterized as imperialistic. It is the ability of a culture to spread to new peoples and to withstand the influence from other cultures. The selection criterion for cultural k-selection, on the other hand, is the contentment of all individuals and thereby a minimization of conflicts between leaders and subjects. Only by satisfying the needs and wishes of all individuals as good as possible can the culture avoid upheavals. The r-selection is determined by the reproduction of culture in space, the k-selection is determined by reproduction in time.

In order to avoid the impractical r- and k- terminology and to establish a distance to the flimsy analogy with genetics, I will here introduce the words regal and kalyptic to replace the symbols r and k in connection with cultural selection. The result of cultural r-selection will be termed a regal culture, and the result of cultural k-selection is called a kalyptic culture. The word regal comes from rex, which means king, and I have chosen this word because a dictatorship can be regarded as the prototype of a regal culture. I have formed the word kalyptic from Kalypso, the name of a nymph in greek mythology, who held Odysseus captured on a desert island. This word is chosen because the most typical cultural k-selection is found on isolated islands. You may notice that the K in genetic K-selection is capital because the mathematical symbol it implies is so, whereas cultural k-selection is written with a small k because it stands for kalyptic.

The concept of regal may be delineated by the following definitions:

  1. a regal selection is a cultural selection process dominated by inter-group conflicts or other collective dangers.
  2. a regal culture is the result of such a selection, or
  3. a culture which spends a high proportion of its resources on expansion or defense, or
  4. a culture that limits the freedom of the individual member and makes considerable demands on the resources of the individual for the purpose of strengthening the group.
  5. a regal cultural product is a cultural phenomenon which is part of the strategy of a regal culture or otherwise a typical product of a regal culture.

The term kalyptic is of course defined as the opposite, i.e. a culture which is not dominated by external conflicts, which spends more resources on satisfying the individual than on strengthening the group, and which attaches importance to individual freedom. The words should preferably be applied as relative graduations, rather than as absolute ideal types. It makes more sense to say that culture X is more regal than culture Y, than to just say that culture X is regal.

The congruity between the above five definitions holds of course only as long as my theory stands. For simplicity I have chosen to apply the same term to an evolutionary process as to its result, and to whole cultures as well as part cultures and cultural products. This deliberate lack of precision is due to the fact that the present theory is at an early stage of its development. I am hereby acknowledging that a too stringent definition may limit research to a single paradigm and thereby impede further development of the concepts. The meaning will be apparent from the context and the examples given12.


4.6 Mechanisms in cultural r/k-selection

As explained above, cultural r- and k-selection may be defined by the driving forces pushing the evolution in one or the other direction. The most important driving force behind regalization is conflicts between groups, while the driving force behind kalyptization is conflicts within a group, or to be more specific: between leaders and subordinates. However, a driving force is not the same as a mechanism. I will therefore explain some possible mechanisms behind cultural r- and k-selection.

The fundamental factor in regalization is war. A society with strict discipline and an effective controlling of the population will have higher chances of winning a war than a more soft society. The victors are likely to force those political, ideological, and religious principles on the defeated people, that made the strong government possible, and consequently those traits will spread. This may be proven statistically as a correlation between political centralism and military efficiency (Otterbein 1970).

It is important to understand, however, that regalization also is possible without war. The threat of war is sufficient. The people will soon realize that armament, physically as well as morally, is necessary to meet the threat of war, and the public will have no problems understanding that sacrifices are necessary to defend national security. The cold war and arms race between USA and the Soviet Union was a clear example of such a reaction. We may here speak of vicarious selection. The rational reaction to the war threat reduces the risk of being attacked as well as the risk of losing a war if it should come. The cultural result is the same as if they had passively waited for the war: regalization. The vicarious selection works in the same direction as the direct selection, but faster, more effectively, and with fewer costs. Vicarious selection is therefore a very important factor in cultural selection.

The opposite process, kalyptization, is found among people living in peaceful surroundings. In the absence of external conflicts, the internal conflicts will be the dominating factors determining the direction of cultural evolution. In a competition between alternative political systems, people will prefer the most comfortable, i.e. the one that lays the fewest demands on people and gives the highest freedom and autonomy to the individual. You may call this hedonic selection (Martindale 1986). The population cannot accept a tyrannical dictatorship, and will rebel against excessive concentrations of power. In the absence of other possibilities, the population can vote with their feet: They can simply flee from the regal society to a more kalyptic one. Such an exodus is of course most effective against a small tribe, but also bigger nation states may be influenced in the kalyptic direction by the threat of mass emigration. On the other hand, the emigrants may cause a regalization of the society they invade.

Another selection mechanism which may lead in the kalyptic direction is economic and technological competition. A kalyptic society is usually more tolerant towards individual economic initiatives than a regal one. This kind of liberalism provides a better breeding ground for economic growth and increasing material wealth. A k-strategy also involves higher investment in education. This investment pays off in scientific and technological progress. The result of investments in enterprises and education may be that a kalyptic society in the long term will win over a more regal society in the economic competition. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was more regal than the USA, but the latter won because economic growth and technological progress made possible a superior military technology. President Michail Gorbachov no doubt realized the economic ineffectivity of the rigid soviet society when he introduced his policy of openness and reform. The result of this selection process is that american and european culture now floods the former Soviet Union, whereas very little culture is diffusing the other way.

These considerations do not, however, mean that economic competition always leads to kalyptization. Economic power and political power are strongly connected, and where economic competition favors large-scale operations, the concentration of economic power will also mean a concentration of political power. Much of the de facto power will lie in the hands of businessmen rather than democratically elected leaders.

The difference between regal and kalyptic cultures may also be defined as a difference in the reproductive strategy of cultures. A regal culture is a culture which utilizes the energy and resources of the individual members in the interest of reproducing the same culture. An obvious example is a religion which commands its adherents to proselytize. The missionary work is in the interest of the reproduction of the religion, not the missionary. The strategy of a kalyptic culture is quite different. It gambles on offering its bearers as many advantages and as few burdens as possible. Such a culture spreads by means of the egoistic choice of individuals, in contrast to the regal culture which limits freedom of choice.

The word strategy here does not necessarily imply conscious planning. I am using the word in the same way as when biologists talk about the reproductive strategy of a primitive animal or plant having no consciousness. The reproductive strategy of a culture is not the same as the strategy of the humans. A cultural pattern which is able to effectively reproduce itself may have arisen by automatic selection of random innovations, or it may be the result of the intelligent planning activity of humans. The selection mechanism works whether humans understand this mechanism or not, and whether this cultural pattern is favorable to its bearers or not.


4.7 Vicarious psychological mechanisms

It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that external dangers to a group strengthen the solidarity within the group and create ethnocentrism and militarism. This phenomenon has been explained as well by evolutionary biologists as by social psychologists.

The biological theories emphasize the importance of group defense, building on kin selection or group selection theory (Lorenz 1963; Reynolds, Falger & Vine 1987).

Within social psychology, the concept of authoritarian personality has traditionally been used to explain ethnocentrism and fascism. The characteristics of a person with an authoritarian personality is that he desires a strongly hierarchical power structure and is willing to submit himself to strong authorities, political, ideological and religious. He fears and hates foreigners as well as deviants within his own group, and his morals in religious and sexual matters are strict (Adorno 1950).

Several investigations have demonstrated that those attitudes and behaviors which are characteristic of an authoritarian personality, are promoted by factors which endanger the social order, such as war or economic crisis (Doty 1991; McCann 1991; McCann & Stewin 1984, 1987, 1990; Padgett & Jorgenson 1982; Jorgenson 1975; Sales 1972, 1973; Rosenblatt 1964). On the other hand, it is doubtful whether factors that threaten the individual lead to authoritarianism (Duckitt 1992). When some of the abovementioned studies show a correlation between mass unemployment and authoritarianism, it may be because unemployment means a crisis to society as a whole, and not only a crisis to the individual.

Some psychologists have expressed the opinion that authoritarianism and xenophobia are due to the projection of intrapsychic or group-internal conflicts on an external enemy (see Dennen 1987). This point of view has been criticized because it is impossible to draw any conclusions about intrapsychic mechanisms on the basis of the present experimental data (McKinney 1973). An alternative explanation is the so-called realistic group conflict-theory, saying that conflicts between groups of humans stem from real problems, most notably competition over limited resources. An increased competition between groups will strengthen group solidarity, the group will become more sharply demarcated, the group identity of the members will be strengthened, and traitors and deviants will be persecuted and ostracized (LeVine & Campbell 1972, see also Hogg & Abrams 1988).

Ethologists have explained the mechanism as an infantile reaction: Just like animal young seek protection by their mother when they are afraid, so do adult humans seek protection under a strong leader in case of fear, whereby they become easily indoctrinable (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989:183f). This theory has not explained, however, why collective dangers result in reactions different from dangers to the individual.

No matter which intrapsychic mechanisms may be working here, we can conclude that dangers to a society lead to a psychological tendency to solidarity and strengthening of the political organization. This mechanism is highly functional because it makes the society better prepared to meet the crisis or external threats. We may see this as a kind of vicarious selection: Crises and external dangers cause a psychological armament, enabling the society to meet the dangers and possibly winning an intergroup conflict. The psychological armament by the threat of war causes the same cultural result as the war itself would: regalization - but faster and with fewer costs. This vicarious mechanism may have been created by either genetic or cultural selection, or most likely by a combination of several selection mechanisms.

Imagine a society in surroundings where there is peace most of the time. A regal culture would be disadvantageous in times of peace because it would spend an unnecessary amount of resources on disciplining the population and maintaining an unnecessary warrior force, and also because cultural r-selection, just like genetic r-selection, entails an uncontrolled growth in population and hence exhaustion of natural resources. In a malthusian way this would lead to famine and mass extinction (Malthus 1798). On the other hand, cultural k-selection, like genetic K-selection, would stabilize the population and ensure maintenance of the means of subsistence.

A regal culture in a peaceful environment may be inexpedient, but a kalyptic culture in bellicose surroundings would be fatal. A kalyptic group will always be easy prey to the desire of a regal neighbor for expanding its territory. A group can only survive in hostile surroundings if it is regal. There is no need to limit the population - the frequent wars take care of that. On the contrary, a fast breeding population is necessary for maintaining maximal military power.

The optimal solution for a group subjected to changing external influences must be flexibility. A fast regalization when an external danger is threatening, and fast return to a kalyptic strategy when the danger is over. The ability for fast adaptation can only be achieved by vicarious selection. You may regard this as feed-forward control. Any mechanism that leads to such an improvement in adaptability would have such a big fitness advantage, that it would be promoted by genetic as well as cultural selection. The gene/culture coevolution is estimated to have taken place through at least two million years (Durham 1982), which is more than sufficient for a mechanism like this to become fixated in our genetic and cultural heritage. The abovementioned mechanisms may be interpreted in this way, although this is admittedly not the only possible explanation for the observed psychological reactions.

Theoretically, it is quite possible that several other vicarious selection mechanism of a psychological nature exist and remain to be discovered. (On page 174 I will return to vicarious selection mechanisms in connection with human procreation).


4.8 The paradox of revolution

When the regal selective pressure on a society is relaxed then the culture will drift in the kalyptic direction, driven by the desire for freedom and happiness in the individual. You may call this a revolution because it is the rebellion of ordinary people against the rulers. The revolution may be peaceful or violent. There is an inherent paradox in the process of violent revolution: The revolution can only succeed if it has enough supporters, and in order to recruit many supporters it must use strong means. In other words: regal strategies are needed to fight against regality. The goals of the revolution are easy to argue for: freedom, justice, and happiness. This is the 'carrot' that makes people rally to the revolutionary movement. But the rebels must take big risks and make immense sacrifices in order to have a chance of winning, and to make people do that the revolutionary movement must use psychological techniques characteristic of regal cultures. It must incite fighting spirit and loyalty. Desperate diseases must have desperate remedies. It may seem, therefore, that a kalyptic revolution is impossible, and that it will only lead to more regality. But history shows that it is indeed possible to make a society more kalyptic this way, and this is the paradox. The process by which the revolutionary movement recruits members is of course a selection external to the movement, but it is internal to the state to which it is rebelling. This intermediate position between internal and external selection means that the revolutionary organization is indeed regal, but less regal than that which it is fighting against, or you may say regal at a lower level. People do not forget what they are fighting for, and they will not sacrifice a lot for the cause unless they have prospects of a significant profit. The conclusion of this is that a revolution may be a step in the kalyptic direction albeit only a small step. The transition from a regal to a kalyptic society is a long and tedious process, taking small steps at a time, especially when violent means are needed.

An obvious example is the communist movement. It started as a revolt against the tyranny of capitalists and a demand for equality. This was the kalyptic carrot that gave communism its many adherents and made possible a violent revolution. But from equality to conformity is only a little step, and the communist states somehow evolved in the regal direction. A massive ideological armament was needed to suppress religion and to meet the threat of war from the capitalist countries. The russians had replaced the tsar regime with the one-party system. True, from monarchy to oligarchy is a step in the kalyptic direction, but only a little step. The regal characteristics of state communism were easy to spot: centralist government, bureaucratic control, and systematic oppression of all other political and religious ideologies.

A more peaceful kind of revolt is seen in the many grass-roots movements that have cropped up in the western world during the twentieth century. People are fighting for democracy, human rights, disarmament, peace, abolition of slavery, racial equality, decentralization, religious liberty, protection of nature against exhaustion and pollution, women's liberation, sexual liberation, etc. The emergence of these movements is an indication of a kalyptization process in the western world now, when the colonial time is over. The success of these movements, and the fact that their organization in most cases is non-centralist, are unmistakable indicators that a peaceful kalyptic revolt may indeed be effective.

The concept of equality is still a schism in the cultural r/k process. A regal society is hierarchical and based on inequality and privileges. A kalyptic insurrection against the hierarchy is a demand for equality, meaning absence of privileges. But another sense of the word equality is conformity and uniformity, which is a regal strategy. The ideal of equality has been used by both kalyptic and regal advocates. Kalyptic when used against discrimination and privileges, as for example during the french revolution; and regal when used to justify imposed uniformity, as e.g. under stalinism.

Rebellions, civil wars, and other internal conflicts in a society do not always mean kalyptization. The rebellious groups may have regal motives or use methods that have regalizing effects. If a minority group in a society uses terrorism or other strategies which are dangerous to the society, then the conflict may have a significant regalizing effect, since the minority group is perceived as a threat to society as a whole.

Since the regalizing effect of such a conflict is of a psychological nature, it is the subjectively perceived social danger, rather than the real threat, that determines whether the conflict has a regalizing effect. Cases where the dangerousness of a minority group is highly overestimated or totally fictive are called witch-hunts or moral panics. I will return to this phenomenon on page 149.


4.9 Typical characteristics of regal and kalyptic cultures

You may imagine different cultures, subcultures, and cultural products ordered on a continuous r/k-scale spanning from the extremely regal to the extremely kalyptic. Of course, such a scale has only intuitive value. It is hardly possible to assign absolute numbers since the r/k-value is not defined by one exact criterion, but evaluated by many different criteria, most of which are more or less subjective. The purpose of introducing such a fictive scale is not to set culture on a mathematical formula, but to give meaning to comparative statements, such as: "Rock music is more kalyptic than hymn singing". Of course, not all phenomena are comparable, but a necessary condition for a comparison to make sense is that you have a yardstick, and this is what I call the cultural r/k-scale.

Table 2 (below) is a list of characteristics which I consider typical for regal and kalyptic cultures. The list is only intended as an aid to interpreting the r/k-scale. A more thorough discussion of the different areas of culture will ensue in the following chapters.

  Regal Kalyptic
Religion Monotheism.
Ascetic, puritan.
Animism, polytheism, fertility cult, ancestor worship.
Philosophy Individuals exist for the benefit of society. Ethnocentrism, racism, material growth, expansion. Society exists for the benefit of the individual. Individualism, tolerance, human rights, protection of natural resources.
Politics Powerful central government, imperialism, uniformity, intolerance, censorship, severe punishments. Decentralized government, democracy, tolerance, peace.
Art Finical, perfectionist, embellished. Repetition of small details with strict geometry. Portrays symbols of power such as gods, rulers, war heroes, or predators. Unrestrained, improvised. Depicts pleasure, fantasy, colors, nature, animals, fertility, individualism, rebelliousness.
Music and singing Monotonous, embellished, or by offensive regality pompous. Strict rules for rhymes and foot. Choir singing, litany. Praises gods, rulers, military superiority, true love. Bass accompaniment dominates over melodic voice. Rhythmic, varied, imaginative, often improvised. Broad repertoire of text themes.
Dance Organized, restrained. Unorganized, hilarious.
Dress Decent, tidy, uniform. Sex-differentiated. Reflects social status. Creative, individual, colorful, sexy. Reflects personal taste.
Architecture Churches and government buildings are grandiose, ostentatious, rich in details, with oversized gates and towers. Functionalistic, creative, individualistic, irregular. No stylistic demonstration of social differences.
Sexual behavior Strict sexual morals. Stereotypical sex roles. Sex is only for procreation. Procreation is a duty. Children are regarded as asexual and ignorant. Contraception and abortion illegal. Early marriage. High population growth. Liberal sexual morals. Sex has several purposes. Flexible, individual, pleasureful behavior. Sexual education of children. Education comes before marriage. Contraception and abortion accepted. No population growth.
Occurrence Mainland with many wars and cultural contrasts. Empires. New colonies. Small isolated societies. Peaceful regions with low population density and no cultural contrasts.
Table 2. Typical characteristics of regal and kalyptic cultural products.


4.10 Limitations to the theory

Every simple nomothetic theory has an inherent risk of reductionism and determinism. Focusing on one particular causal model may make you blind to other possible explanations. In social sciences there is never just one cause and one effect. No model is exhaustive and no theory is perfect. A general objection against causal models is that they are difficult to prove. Sociological data may show correlations, but you must never forget that correlations cannot distinguish between cause and effect. In the exact sciences, controlled experiments are considered necessary to prove causal relationships, but such experiments are impossible in social studies for ethical as well as practical reasons. Some sociologists may be tempted to reject nomothetic theories all together for these reasons, but that would not improve our understanding of social systems. The justification of a social theory lies first and foremost in its explanatory power and its ability to predict the effects of new influences. And in my opinion, the cultural r/k-theory has exactly these qualities, despite its simplicity.

The biggest risk of applying this theory is that you may be tempted to paint everything in black and white, when the truth is that everything is more or less gray. An absolutely regal or absolutely kalyptic society does not exist, and never has. Many organizations seem paradoxical or confusing because they mix regal and kalyptic characteristics and strategies in unexpected combinations. I have already mentioned revolutionary movements as such a paradox. Another example is certain authoritarian organizations where membership is difficult to obtain. Unlike typical regal organizations which are working hard to recruit new members, certain organizations have such strict demands for admission, that potential members have to work hard for proving their commitment and loyalty through various ordeals and initiation rites. Such organizations are far from fully utilizing their expansion potential, which by definition is a kalyptic characteristic. On the other hand, the demand for absolute commitment and loyalty is an important sign of regality. The background for this discrepancy is that the organization needs the full commitment of the members in order to defend its aim, rather than its membership, and that the quality of the members is more important than their quantity in this respect. Examples of such organizations are certain rocker and motorcycle gangs, secret fraternities, extremist political action groups, and criminal organizations.


4.11 Previously published related theories

The cultural r/k-theory is based on the distinction between external and internal selection, and this distinction is of course not new. Anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown, for example, has made a distinction between the internal and external adaptation of a society (1948:87), and Lenski (1970:89) has mentioned the possible conflict between internal and external selection without going into detail with the consequences of such a conflict.

David Hull, who regards scientific progress as a selection process, has compared scientists’ ways of spreading their ideas with r- and K- reproductive strategies, but he does not draw any consequences of this distinction (Hull 1988:521).

Specific versus general evolution

Another classification of evolutionary processes which, just like the r/k-theory, is based on selection criteria rather than selection mechanisms, is the distinction between specific and general evolution (Sahlins & Service 1960). Specific evolution means adaptation to a specific environment and fixed conditions. General evolution means the evolution of improved adaptability, i.e. the ability to adapt fast to changing living conditions. This distinction between specific and general evolution is independent of mechanism and may therefore be applied to biological as well as cultural evolution. David Kaplan (1960) illustrates this difference with historical examples. He says that generally adapted cultures (this is what is commonly called highly developed cultures) often will be able to dominate over specifically adapted cultures, but not always. The latter cultures may be better off under special conditions, and may survive in their niche despite influences from more generally developed cultures.

Stress culture

The sociologists C. and W. Russell have developed a theory of cultural selection where the concept of stress-culture plays a central role. Overpopulation, famine, and other kinds of crises will cause a stress-culture characterized by a strict hierarchy, conformism, and cruelty towards children, according to the Russells' theory. The stress-culture is inflexible and the number of cultural innovations is small, which reduces the adaptability of the culture. The poor adaptation combined with starvation, etc., leads to a decrease in the population, whereby the stress factors disappear. This paves the way for a new cultural flourishing with growth, inventiveness, development, and high artistic productivity. This so-called renaissance continues until the country again is overpopulated (Russell & Russell 1982-1992).

Despotism among animals

Biologist Sandra Vehrencamp has developed a model for hierarchic differences among social animals. According to this model, the leader of a group cannot subjugate the other animals so much that they would be better off leaving the group. The power of the leader is therefore determined by the advantages of living in a group compared to the possibilities of living outside the group. Applied to humans, this theory means that the power of a despot is determined by the possibilities for his subjects to leave the group (Vehrencamp 1983).

Genetic r/K-theory

The biological r/K-theory has given rise to a discussion of whether there is difference between different human races regarding their genetic r- or K-strategy, and whether such differences can explain racial differences in behavior or intelligence (Silverman 1990). This discussion has remained within a biological and genetic paradigm, and the significance of cultural heritage has largely been ignored in this discussion.

Some scientists draw very far-reaching conclusions from the genetic r/K-theory, maintaining that not only differences between human races, but also between different social classes, and even between individuals within the same class may be described with reference to the biological r/K-theory (Rushton 1987, Ellis 1987). These scientists are studying correlations between demographic variables relevant to genetic r/K-selection and certain behavior patterns which are believed to be characteristic of biological r- and K-strategies. (As explained on page 88, an r-strategy means that the individual spends most of its resources on producing as many children as possible, whereas a K-strategy implies that the individual has only a few children but invests a lot of resources on caring for these children). The reproductive strategy of women is a K-strategy, because for women there are high costs to raising children. The strategy of men, on the other hand, is more in the r-direction because in theory men can have an unlimited number of children at very little cost, and because men cannot identify their own children with the same certainty as women can. The same principle can explain age differences in behavior: older individuals are more inclined to invest their resources in caring for the children and grandchildren they already have, than in having more children.

Behavior patterns connected with a relatively r strategy are, according to these scientists: early marriage, many children, opportunistic exploitation of the environment, colonialism, criminal behavior, and abuse and neglect of children. A more characteristic K behavior includes: diligent child care, effective utilization of energy resources, high intelligence, stable population, altruism, high degree of social organization, and marital fidelity. According to the theories of Rushton (1987) and Ellis (1987), the r-strategy is primarily found in humans of african descent and in people of low socioeconomic status, whereas the K-strategy is typically found in people of high socioeconomic status and in humans of oriental descent, followed by europeans.

Associations to the social darwinism (see chapt. 2.2) immediately come to the mind here. The main difference between the above theory and social darwinism being that the scientists themselves do not belong to the most noble race, but have to be content with a second place.

The weakness of this theory is of course that it overestimates the significance of genetic inheritance relative to cultural inheritance. Cultural selection is several orders of magnitude faster than genetic selection, and cultural selection theory is therefore much more likely to explain differences between groups of people than genetic selection theory is. (For further criticism see Cunningham & Barbee 1991, Allen 1992).

However, the interesting thing about the abovementioned theory is that those behavior patterns that Rushton, Ellis, and Silverman find to be connected with an r- respective K-strategy (from the point of view of a biological r/K-theory) are almost the same as I have found characteristic of regal and kalyptic cultures (from the point of view of the cultural r/k-theory)13.

The r/k-theories are based on selection criteria rather than mechanisms. Consequently, many of the conclusions that may be drawn on the basis of these theories are the same whether the reproduction mechanism is genetic or cultural inheritance, or a combination. The differences between the conclusions from the two theories are determined more by differences in units of selection than differences in reproduction and selection mechanisms. This explains the similarities between the conclusions of the two theories. The main objection against using genetic r/k-theory to explain differences between groups of humans is about speed. Therefore such a theory will gain in credibility when cultural inheritance is replaced for genetic inheritance. Another theoretical possibility is to assume the existence of psychological or endocrinological mechanisms functioning as vicarious selection for genetic and/or cultural r/k-selection.


Among previously published social theories, the one that comes closest to the cultural r/k-theory is, surprisingly, a theory that Herbert Spencer published in the late nineteenth century (see chapt. 2.1). Spencer defined several different types of societies, of which the most important are the militant and the industrial society. According to Spencer, the militant society is characterized by a strong central government. The government is strengthened by external conflicts, and weakened by internal conflicts. A society has two regulating systems: sustaining and defending. In the militant society, the defending structure dominates over the sustaining structure. The industrial society is opposite. It is marked by peace, weak government, and democracy. In the militant society, the individual exists for the benefit of society. In the industrial society, society is believed to exist for the benefit of the individual. In a militant society people live to work, in an industrial society people work to live. Collaboration is compulsory in a militant society, voluntary in an industrial society (Spencer, H. 1876, 1893).

If we replace the word militant with regal, and industrial with kalyptic, it is evident that, more than a hundred years ago, Herbert Spencer provided a quite precise characterization of these two types of societies. Although at that time Spencer had already formulated the principle of selection (see chapt. 2.1) he had difficulties explaining the mechanisms behind the transition from one type of society to another. Often he resorted to almost teleological explanations, as for example that a strong government arises when the threats from external enemies necessitates it; or that the militant society is replaced by the industrial because the latter is more effective. Such explanations make more sense in connection with vicarious selection - a concept that had not yet been formulated.


4.12 Conservativism versus innovativism

The continuous reproduction of a culture may be more or less accurate. In a conservative society, customs and norms are followed in every particular, and any deviation from the norms will be sanctioned against. The opposite is a dynamic and progress-oriented society, where novel thinking is encouraged and where new ideas are entertained for the very sake of novelty. Tolerance towards innovations has the advantage that it speeds up social evolution and adaptation to changing conditions. On the other hand, innovativism threatens social stability because norms are more easily broken and because more resources are spent on trying out new ideas. How ardently old customs should be upheld or how much society should encourage novel and deviant ways, must be a compromise between social stability and adaptability. Conservativism would be the most suitable strategy for an isolated society under constant environmental conditions, whereas a society in a turbulent environment where new problems and challenges often arise would be better off showing tolerance towards new ideas in order to adapt as fast as possible to the ever changing conditions14.

Cultural r/k-theory says that an isolated society will evolve in the kalyptic direction and you would therefore expect a high tolerance towards deviant ideas in such a society. But the isolated society needs stability more than adaptability if the external conditions are constant. In old, isolated societies we may therefore often see a high degree of obedience towards ancient rules and norms and drastic sanctions against anyone who breaks them, even though, in other respects, the same society shows a high tolerance and respect for individual peculiarities.

On this background we may define another dimension in the cultural selection theory: conservativism versus innovativism. A conservative society is a society which sticks to old traditions and life forms and does not tolerate change. The opposite is an innovative society, which encourages novel thinking and has a predilection for everything new. An isolated society will, according to this theory, evolve in the conservative direction thereby improving its stability, whereas a society that constantly must adapt to new conditions will evolve in the direction of innovativism. The conservative/innovative dimension is, just like the r/k dimension, defined by selection criteria rather than by mechanism.

This dimension - conservativism versus innovativism - is often in opposition to the r/k-dimension. As mentioned above, the kalyptic tendencies in an isolated society will tend to increase the tolerance towards deviance, but the conservative tendencies in the same society will involve intolerance towards any changes in the ways of life.

A similar dilemma may be seen at the opposite end of the scale. A society which is not isolated but in constant conflict with its neighbors may find a regal and conservative strategy most effective if the enemy always uses the same tactics, but if the enemy frequently invents new tactics or new weapons, then the society has to be innovative in order to adapt to the ever changing situations and new challenges. Otherwise it would lose the battle and be deselected. But innovativism and regality do not go well together because the regal society suppresses deviance, novel thinking, and individual initiative. Two societies can therefore compete either on regality or on innovativism, but not easily on both.

The middle ages was an era where european countries competed mostly on regality. But modern times have seen a change in parameters of action in the competition between industrialized countries. The arms race during the cold war was, to a high degree, a competition on military technology, where the winner was the most innovative, but not necessarily the most regal.


12. To those readers who feel offended by this deliberate lack of stringent definitions, I will remind that conceptual precision is characteristic of the end of scientific research, not the beginning. The most appropriate way of defining an incompletely researched phenomenon will in many cases be by examples. For example, it was impossible to define the concept of color precisely until the wave nature of light was known. Nevertheless, nobody was in doubt what color meant because it was easy to define by means of examples.
    The often stated demand for precise definitions have some unfortunate consequences which too often are ignored (Koertge 1984). A precise definition of a phenomenon will often resemble the etiological theory of the same phenomenon to such a degree that the causal explanation is reduced to a tautology, which prevents the research for alternative explanations. All too often, a precise definition only makes sense within a certain paradigm and consequently restricts research to this particular paradigm. Such a restriction would be particularly unfortunate here where interdisciplinary research is the aim.

13. I had no knowledge of the above theory at the time I developed the cultural r/k-theory. The most important discrepancy between the conclusions of the two theories is the evaluation of the social organization, which according to the cultural theory is strongest in regal societies. According to the cultural theory, morals of marital fidelity are stricter in regal societies. When Ellis (1987) associates marital fidelity with K-selection, it is probably because of the consequences for child rearing. I regard altruism as kalyptic when it means care for the individual, but regal when it means that the individual sacrifices himself for the sake of the common good. As regards intelligence, I believe that this quality is highly dependent on social factors, most notably a stimulating upbringing and education, which are kalyptic phenomena. In this respect, therefore, there is correspondence between the conclusions of the genetic and the cultural theories.

14. An analogous opposition is seen in genetic selection. A high mutation rate has the advantage of accelerating evolution and thus increase adaptability. But the tradeoff is considerable. Deleterious mutations are much more frequent than adaptive mutations, and a high mutation rate will therefore lead to considerable losses in the form of crippled or unfit individuals.