Both simple and complex types of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at any desired level of cultural advance. When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.
Edward Sapir. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech
The institutions of men are as distinctly stratified as the earth on which he lives. They succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seem the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature acting through successively changed conditions in savage, barbaric, and civilized life. … Few would dispute that the following … are arranged rightly in order of culture: Australian, Tahitian, Aztec, Chinese, Italian.
Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture
These quotations capture two aspects of cultural evolution. Cultures (including languages) diverge and diversify over time. But cultures can also be ranked from simple to complex, from small scale to large scale, and complexity tends to increase over time. A recent publication provides quantitative evidence for this second, unilinear aspect of cultural evolution. The publication is the product of project Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, alleged inventor of writing), which has been building up a massive databank of global history. (You can follow them on Twitter here.) The authors of the study (54 of them!) find that a single dimension of social scale/complexity accounts for a large fraction of cultural variation over space and time, and that the correlates of social scale are much the same in different world regions – Tylor vindicated.*
Turning from cultural to biological evolution we find the same two phenomena, both diversification over time, and increasing complexity and improved design. But in the biological case, it is diversification that is relatively more conspicuous. Presumably this reflects that fact that in biology, adaptive organization is found mostly at the level of organisms (or, less often, at the level of superorganisms, like insect colonies, or mutualistic associations). A great diversity of organisms can be found in any ecosystem, adapted to a diversity of niches. They are mostly not in direct competition and may be hard to rank along a single scala naturae. In cultural evolution, by contrast, adaptive organization is commonly found not just at the individual level, but at the level of political communities – tribes, chiefdoms, states – which typically claim possession of a piece of territory. Success or failure at holding territory provides a metric for comparing societies, which usually (not always) favors the more complex.
So both the history of humanity, and the evolution of life on earth, and are, in some degree, stories of progress and improvement. But this progress comes at a cost; the success of some is bought at the expense of others’ failures. We could end the year on a pessimistic note, with Edward Gibbon – “History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind” or Charles Darwin – “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” Instead, for a final thought, I’ll finish by quoting myself from two years back, on New Year’s Eve 2015:
Darwin’s theory implies that some organisms are adapted, as a result of cumulative natural selection, to survive and reproduce, often at the expense of others. We’ve seen on Logarithmic History how much of evolution has been driven by evolutionary “arms races,” especially between predators and prey. And we’ve seen that group-against-group competition is arguably a major motor of human social evolution. It’s possible to draw a grim lesson from this: that we must embrace violent struggle and population replacement as our destiny. But there are more palatable options.
So here’s a different take: At the beginning of The Godfather, movie and book, Michael Corleone, the scion of a mafia family, is set on getting out of the bloody family business, and going straight. In the story, he fails, and is drawn back into a life of violence. The tragic arc makes for a great story, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. By analogy, every one of us is the product of a long evolutionary and cultural history which includes generous helpings of violence. But history is not destiny: there’s no reason we can’t get out of the old bloody business of our species, and go straight.
* although his Chinese < Italian ranking maybe reflects more the prejudices of his time.