Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture

Several months ago I wrote a few reflections on Ross Douthat’s newest book, The Decadent Society.[1] As I noted, Douthat’s most interesting claim is that we live in an age of intellectual sterility. We cycle ever backwards to the intellectual, cultural, and political priorities of 1975. In response, I argued that complaints of cultural sterility and intellectual decline are themselves no new thing in American life, and are often seen just before grand social revolutions, as was the case with similar laments aired just before the 1960s counter-culture burst onto the American scene. One reader reached out and suggested that I peer back even further into the past. He recommended Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West as the proper starting point for the modern preoccupation with intellectual stagnation.

Spengler’s work is interesting yet incoherent. His grand thesis relies on metaphors for human life that simply do not hold. The central unit of analysis in the Spenglerian view is a “civilization” or “culture,” two tags for the same unit of humanity in different life stages, just as caterpillar and butterfly describe the same insect on different sides of metamorphosis. That simile captures the ruling conceit of Spengler’s work: a civilization-culture is an organism, destined from birth to grow to certain forms and decline to a certain death. Spengler identifies several of these organic super-cultures. They include the Egyptian, Chinese, Babylonian, Indian, Mesoamerican, Classical (which Spengler often calls the “Apollonian”), Near Eastern (which Spengler sometimes calls the “Magian” and sometimes calls the “Arabian,” but which includes Byzantium and old Judea, in addition to the great caliphates), and finally the Western (which Spengler dubs “Faustian,” and has its birth in the High Middle Ages). 

There is nothing inherently wrong-headed in this game of divvying up human societies into different categories and forms. There may very well be something common to the lifeways, ideas, or ideals of an American industry man from 1900 and a Teutonic Knight from 1300.  This common thread may very well distinguish them from citizens of a Greek Polis or the gentry spawned by some Confucian exam. Spengler’s most interesting passages come when he tries to prove exactly this sort of distinction. Here we find him railing against the Nietzschean idea that Christianity is what separates the moral sense of the moderns from the ancients; there we find him contrasting the themes of Homeric epics to Norse sagas and Biblical myth. Even when he is wrong, these arguments are thought provoking and worth close consideration.[2]

Less positive things can be said for Spengler’s conception of civilizations as organisms. Organisms have a life course, ordained at birth. From a seed springs a sapling. From a sapling grows an oak. In time the mighty oak ages to leafless hulk. Accident may interrupt this natural course. Feller’s axe or fire’s heat may halt the journey from acorn to rotting lumber; poor soil may cause our oak to grow less tall. But if allowed to grow, the acorn shall always grow into an oak, and never into an elm, a mushroom, or a hippopotamus. As eggs are destined to hatch as tadpoles then grow to croaking toads, as infants are meant to pass through days of adolescent strength then on to wizened languor, so every great culture must travel its predetermined life-path.

The details of this path are complex. As Spengler sees it, the springtime of a Culture is a heroic age: society is not complex, specialized, or stratified into too many different layers. Political life centers around the martial feats of a noble class. The central symbols, myths, and animating ideals (of which the rest of the Culture to come is a more sophisticated expression or application of) are first realized here. For Classical Culture this is the Homeric Age; for Western Culture, it is the age of sagas and chivalry. Then comes the flowering of Culture: towns grow, polities congeal, and the ethos of the people is expressed in more philosophically, artistically, and politically sophisticated forms. At this stage, these ideals are instinctive; the main tenets and assumptions of the Culture color daily life so strongly that they are rarely expressly stated and are never explicitly defended. This changes as a Culture moves from the summer of its existence (roughly what we today call the “early modern” period for the west, and Athens at its height for classical civilization) to its autumn. In this new period the most beautiful and penetrating expressions of a Culture are created. But the core values of a Culture are also then made explicit, and having been spelled out soon face critique (by men like Rousseau and Socrates). This tends to happen as societies urbanize and intellectual life is cut off from the countryside and its peasantry, where the old ethos runs most true. Eventually doctrines and social movements arise whose intended purpose is to upend the founding ethos entirely. Spengler sees Nietzsche’s proclamations and socialist agitation as the Western incarnation of what the Epicureans and especially the Stoics were to Classical Culture: repudiations of their Cultural foundations.

This marks the death of Culture and the birth of Civilization. A Civilization is a Culture grown cold, a society living on the cultural fumes of past centuries. Civilized man has lost his ethos. Truly innovative cultural production ends; poets, playwrights, and philosophers will only pen derivative works. None will be remembered a few decades down the line. Human endeavor is reduced to political competition. Civilization means war and empire. Rome occupies this role in Classical Culture; there was a short burst of derivative artistic activity at empire’s beginning, but after Tacitus even that dies out. For the last centuries of Classical Civilization there were only Caesars and the contest for the metropole. Civilizations can be preserved in this sort of stasis for centuries (as in Rome), or even millennium (as Spengler believes happened to China), as long as no outside force is strong enough to destroy the hardened artifice. Thus when Spengler declared the decline of the West he was not prophesying apocalypse but stagnation. Western Culture was in its death throes; Western Civilization was about to begin.

Spengler identifies parallels more minute than my summary allows; he does this not only for classical and Western civilization, but for many of the civilization-cultures he has dreamed up. I stick to the Western and Classical examples, however, because it is clear these are the civilizations Spengler knows best. While he has locked away an unusual amount of information about the Egyptians, he is only intimately familiar with his Faustian, Apollonian, and Magian cultures, and most of the book is a tripartite comparison between the three. He frankly admits that not enough archaeological evidence then existed to make definitive conclusions about the nature of the Babylonian and Mesoamerican cultural forms, while his gloss of Indian and Chinese are somewhat silly. (His schema requires China to have declined into cultural stagnation by the 200s BC. Anyone familiar with Tang dynasty poetry or Song dynasty philosophy knows how daft this is).

This is a bigger problem than it might seem. Why does Spengler conclude that cultures are organisms, destined to grow along their life path as saplings grow to trees? Only because he sees the pattern repeat again and again in human history. Nowhere does Spengler actually explain why a culture might travel the course it does. He only observes that past cultures have all done this, and thus Western culture will do so as well. Spengler’s argument is all correlation—and for a correlative argument, his data set is extremely small.

I attribute these oddities in Spengler to a Hegelian heritage Spengler never quite acknowledges. Hegel saw History as an actor who operated above, or rather, through human agency. Spengler writes in a similar mode, distinguishing, as the Hegelians did, between true World History (with a capital W-H) on the one hand from mere historical ephemera on the other. Like the Hegelians, he privileges intellectual history as the core of this human story. Spengler’s innovation is to point out a flaw in the Hegelian narrative: what Hegel and his acolytes had assumed was the grand narrative of human history was actually just a narrow slice of the whole. Spengler adds the rest of the globe to his attempt, replacing Hegel’s one big story of the Mind with many big stories, each a History of a specific culture’s Mind. You might think of Spengler as the marriage of Hegelianism and cultural relativism. If in Hegel individuals and events are simply expressions of the World Historical force as it marches on its predestined path, in Spengler individuals are similarly reduced to the trajectory of the Culture that birthed them.

But Hegel is a flawed foundation. The trouble with Hegel, well acknowledged even in Spengler’s day: unless history with a capital H and mind with a capital M are just other words for God, there is no reason to assume there is some unitary, organic force acting outside of individual human agency. This problem is even more acute with Spengler, who clearly believes in neither God nor gods. We know that an organism follows a select life path because that path is translated, one protein at a time, from its DNA. Where is the genetic code of a culture? Is there even such an entity as culture? Neither world events nor intellectual trends are the result of some entity called culture acting on us or through us. There is no telos in a culture that precedes the interactions of the individuals who comprise it. Culture is an abstract shorthand we use to describe the totality of these interactions. [3]

Spengler’s runaway metaphor is really just an especially exaggerated case of a common human error—an error so common that evolutionary anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that it is an innate feature of human psychology, just as built into our cognition as perception of the color spectrum. One aspect of this “folk sociology” is that human beings

Spontaneously construe human groups as agents. For instance, we talk about villages or social classes or nations as entities that want this, fear that, take decisions, fail to perceive what is happening, reward people or take revenge against them, are hostile toward other groups, and so on. Even the workings of a small social group like a committee are often described in such… This is not just a modern phenomenon. In many tribal societies, people talk about collections of individuals as distinct groups. Lineage societies, for instance, have distinct descent groups that are often considered to be different agents—such that one can say that the so-and-so lineage “wants this” or “resists that,” and there is nothing strange in such talk. In many places in the world these days, ethnic groups or social classes play this role, and it seems self-evident that each group has specific goals or intentions.[4]

But of course human collectives are not unitary agents. Corporations do not desire, nations do not act, bureaucracies do not maneuver, and the people do not demand. We describe them doing these things for much the same reason the U.S. Code affirms that “the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” Without this legal fiction, any transaction with a corporation—be it regulation, taxation, prosecution, or a simple commercial deal—would be too complex to manage.[5] The legal solution to this problem mirrors the cognitive short-cut our brain takes to understand collectives. “Corporate personhood” is simply folk sociology encoded in law.

It is not hard to jump from treating a collective as an agent to treating a collective as a living agent, possessing all the attributes of animals and people, the living agents we are most familiar with. It is natural to talk of the ‘death of Rome’ or ‘national birthdays.” It is hard to remember with such talk that these phrases are mere metaphors, and that words like “Rome” or “the nation” are themselves abstractions meant to simplify more complex realities. This is one of the other aspects of Boyer’s “folk sociology.” We are primed to think of patterns of human interaction as reified, external objects that act on us much like physical forces encountered in nature do. We are not actually “suffocated” by tradition or “pressured” by our workplace. This is not just because there is nothing out there in the world physically suffocating us or applying pressure to our bodies. The truth is that there is not really a tradition or a set of norms “out there” at all. What we experience and understand as an external force acting on us is in reality a simplified mental representation of the expectations, preferences, behaviors, and concepts of dozens or hundreds of other individuals, formed through thousands and tens of thousands of interactions.

Why do we describe this tangle of interactions as a physical force? Boyer explains:

[A concept like] “Tradition” could be “used as a political instrument” against colonial powers, because it was “reified,” as anthropologists say, that is, construed as external fact rather than a combination of concepts and preferences in the minds of many individuals…. one crucial factor is that a more realistic description, in terms of interactions between individuals, is simply beyond our capacities. The aggregation of myriad individual behaviors, many of which are prompted by other agents’ behaviors, constitute complex systems, beyond what human minds can represent in consciously accessible form. In other words, we could say that we are condemned to use folk sociology, with its misleading assumptions, because of the mysteries of coordination—the mysteries of apparent order created by the aggregation of myriad interactions that we cannot follow.[6]

As a heuristic for daily use, this is fine. It is in fact quite unavoidable. But for theoretical understanding and modeling of the preferences and frames that determine cultural continuity and divergence it is insufficient. Like many studies of “culture” that came after his, by envisioning culture as some sort of system external to the people whose thoughts, actions, and desires comprise it, Spengler has simply dressed up the assumptions of folk sociology in fancy theoretics.

One might contrast this approach to the study of culture to the two warring branches of evolutionary anthropology now attempting to create ‘scientific’ understandings of cultural production and transmission.[7] The first labels the object of its study “cultural epidemiology.” It has also been called the “Paris School” of cognitive anthropology. The second favors the term “cultural evolution” and is sometimes called the California school of evolutionary anthropology. Boyer belongs to this first group; Dan Sperber deserves proper credit as the father of the school, and you can find many of its current members blogging at the Culture and Cognition website. Though their output is varied, Olivier Morin’s How Traditions Live and Die, and Boyer’s Minds Make Societies are the two most important statements of the Paris school perspective on the issues posed in this essay. The California school, having started with anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd in the 1980s, now has their folk scattered among anthropology, psychology, and economics departments across the Anglosphere. Joe Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success and Cecilia Heyes’ Cultural Gadgets are recent, representative anchor texts of this research tradition.

Both programs see individual human beings as the central actors—agents—of culture. Larger cultural patterns are treated as emergent phenomena that arise from these agents’ interactions with each other, as mediated by the incentives these agents face and the inborn cognitive machinery they bring to a given task. The two schools diverge in their solution to a great unknown: the mystery of transmission. 

Consider some element of culture. A ritual, possibly, or a greeting. Or maybe something more concrete, like a recipe, a hairdo, or a process for fashioning arrowheads. It could also be something intangible, like a prejudice or preference. Are these things culture? Yes—but only if they are shared. (Or more precisely, remembering Boyer’s warning that culture is not some external object we all can take a piece off of, only if these practices are copied). A cultural practice that has not been transmitted from one human to another is not a cultural practice at all, but an individual idiosyncrasy. The mystery is why some practices stay idiosyncratic while others become established practice. Why do some practices last centuries, when others wisp out in one or two lifetimes? How do humans transmit those elements of culture that are not explicitly taught at all (like attitudes, preferences, and prejudices)? And can the answer to these questions help explain others—such as why humans in disparate times and places converge upon similar cultural forms?

In answering these questions, members of the Paris school focus on what they call “attractors,” a phrase inspired by its use in systems theory. Cultural attractors are expressions of “culture” that human behavior that recur, by biological necessity, as cultural practices are transmitted one generation to another. To give you an example of what they mean, imagine you decide to found a new custom. You decide not to greet the people you meet with “hello” but instead with a chain of numbers that carry cultural significance. “07121941!” you shout when you meet an older person; “11092001!” you cry when you meet with younger folk. Your hope is that others will soon follow your practice. Could long string of numbers like these become the center of a general custom?

Yes, the Paris schoolmen would say, but as it does you will notice that your custom starts to change. It is difficult to memorize 8 digit strings. Soon the people who follow your custom will be writing and thinking out those numbers as 07-12-1941 and 11-09-2001 instead of as 07121941 and 11092001. Those are famous dates, but we adopt a similar expedient to memorize phone numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers, or any other long string of numerals. Our brain simply has a much easier time dealing with numbers in 2-4 digit chunks. Those chunks are an “attractor.” When a person tries to memorize and transmit the string you have given them, regardless of their cultural background, they will naturally begin divvying it up into these chunks. If long strings of numerals are involved in a cultural practice, smaller number chunks will soon be involved as well. Otherwise the number strings would not be remembered. The transmission chain would end well before it became an enduring tradition. Our cultural traditions are thus constrained and shaped by the limits, biases, and inborn drives of our evolved cognitive machinery.

To take a more complex example: Weddings in different parts of the world look and feel different, but where there are humans, there are weddings. For the researcher of the Paris school, it is this fact—that hundreds of societies across the world converged upon the idea that it is right for a man and woman to be paired together, and that this paring must be marked off formally by a ceremony or celebration—that demands scientific explanation. While reliant on evolutionary psychology, something as complex as a wedding is not reduced to a single evolved “wedding module” sitting in the back of the human mind. At the root of the wedding are a host of much smaller evolved mental ticks (desire for bonded pair mating, our inborn tendency to reify social experiences, an instinctive understanding of social signaling, etc.) and material interests (the realities of human child-rearing, costly-signals inherit in dowries and feasts, the actual exchange of wealth in a bride-price or a dowry, etc.) that make the idea of a wedding a stable cultural attractor that would eventually emerge whenever human beings live together. [8]

If the Paris school concerns itself with cultural recurrence, the California school is most interested in cultural divergence. California school researchers are less inspired by evolutionary psychology than evolutionary theory writ large. They see the emergence and persistence of the world’s cultural practices as analogous to the emergence and persistence of biological traits. Like new genetic mutations, cultural variation arises in an almost random fashion. For most of human history change happens on the margins. Complex cultural practices are the accretion of one small innovation after another—the products of decades or centuries of small cultural mutations. But if these practices emerge randomly, their persistence is anything but random. Like biological traits, cultural traits are subject to selection. Rituals, beliefs, and attitudes, hunting, foraging, and farming techniques, property and kin systems, clothing and decorations, any and every aspect of a lifeway has a potential effect on fitness of the individual who practices them. If a cultural practice increases the likelihood that the person who practices it will live, thrive, and raise up the next generation of practitioners, then it will survive. Cultural practices that make the individuals who practice them more likely to die or less likely to pass on their cultural inheritance than competitors will not long persist.

One of the most popular essays on this website (titled “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are”) is my review of The Secret of Our Success, a seminal popularization of the California school tradition. If the California school’s attempt to forge a Darwinian theory of human culture interests you, you should go read that post. One thing that review does not really emphasize is the social nature of the selection pressures at the center of much recent cultural evolution theory. It is rather obvious that the parkas of the Inuit persisted in face of selection pressures imposed by the physical environment. But the environment we live in is as much social as physical, and changes in the social order might lead to distinct selection pressures. This explains, the California schoolmen maintain, the rise of universalist religions in the Axial Age, and the persistence of individualist norms in Western Europe. These norms and religious beliefs were more likely to survive in the specific social environments that selected for each (large, urban-centered empires on the one hand, and Europe after the Catholic church had purged the countryside of the clans on the other). [9]

Between these two schools lie many points of dispute: How accurate (or with how much “fidelity”) must copying be for cultural transmission to last over generations? At what level of selection is cultural evolution (supposedly) happening, and what (if anything) is actually being selected for? What is the cultural equivalent of DNA, and if there isn’t one, can cultural evolution models even make sense? Does cultural transmission follow a Lamarckian, instead of Darwinian, pattern? What are the actual mechanisms of cultural transmission, and do Paris and California school models work equally well at explaining the variety of mechanisms we have uncovered? Does a theory of specialist mental modules that constrain human behavior (as in Paris school theory) actually match up with a neuroscientific understanding of the brain? Can mental modules themselves be the thing transmitted from one generation to the next?

Yet put these disputes to the side and you see something interesting: neither of these schools has anything useful to say about the kind of cultural patterns Spengler is most concerned with. They lack the tools to explain why some societies spawn myths that are remembered and treasured millennia later, but other peoples in other centuries have no such power, but instead are renowned for refined poetry or rationalist treatises on statecraft and strategy. Nor do they have a good explanation for patterns of cultural diffusion. They cannot tell us why the Christians of New England and North Carolina share some beliefs and practices in common, but not all, nor why some aspects of Neoconfucianism were easy to export to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, while others grew deep roots only in Chinese soil.

If Spengler’s crude correlations are a tad too amateurish to justify these queries, there are other, more solid historians who cannot be ignored. Consider Nakamura Hajime, a giant in the fields of Buddhology, Indology, and Japanese philosophy. Nakamura’s two great comparative works have opposite theses. The first, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan was a massive comparative study of the language and religious ideas of the four civilizations included in its title. Nakamura sought to draw out what was distinctive in the “ways of thinking” in each tradition by examining predictable shifts in how ideas—especially Buddhist ideas—changed as they went from one country to another. Certain religious ideas might spread, other ideas would shift in a predictable manner as they were adapted to the new culture, and others could not be transplanted at all.

To give just one minor example, the Indian religious tradition is replete with esoteric sexual rituals and the frank and even erotic depiction of sexual acts. When Buddhism was exported to China, however, all of this was stripped away. Passages in Sutras that referenced prostitutes, genitalia, or sexual metaphors were often scrubbed out or replaced entirely. And 

[In India] mysterious rites and ceremonies which violated public moral standards were performed under the name of Buddhism. The Chinese, however, did not accept these mysterious rites although the esoteric Buddhist doctrine itself was adopted. Among the esoteric sutras translated into Chinese in the Sung dynasty were some which described sexual relations symbolically; yet they hardly exerted any influence. Although the Chinese accepted wholesale the magic spells of esoteric Buddhism, the indecent side connected with sex was not accepted. Therefore, no sexual esoteric image at all exists among the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which were worshiped by the Chinese.[10]

In contrast, “the religious exaltation of sexual enjoyment is one of the prominent characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism,” and these ideas and imagery that could not spread to China were adopted in Tibet quite rapidly. When Chinese Buddhists tried to export their more chaste version of Buddhist practice to Tibet in the later imperial era, “they were soon expelled by the natives. The strict morality of Chinese Buddhism could not take root in Tibet.”[11]

This story poses an interesting problem for the Paris school, who analyzes cultural practice in terms of universal cultural attractors. The recurrence of sexual imagery and ritual in Indian religion over the centuries, and its eager adoption in Tibet, would suggest that a cultural attractor tapping into evolved mental modules might make sense of the practice—but were these modules missing from Chinese minds? Why did this cultural attractor attract so little in China?

On the other hand, the California school finds itself in its own difficult position. Theoretically, sexual ritual and sexual religious imagery (or barring that, attitudes towards sexuality more generally) might have some adaptive function. But if they do, California school theorists must explain why these practices and attitudes were adaptive enough to survive in one society, while the opposite tendency persisted in another. One answer to this dilemma would be to relate divergence in attitudes toward sexual ritual to the sort of divergence that naturally arises from genetic drift in geographically isolated populations. But that leaves the problem of transfer: some Buddhist practices and beliefs transferred to China, but not all of them did. Others moved to Tibet, and those were often vastly different from the ones that went to China. Many cultural evolution theories exist to explain why humans might copy other humans; these theories do not explain why copying would be so selective.

These problems multiply as you read Nakamura’s book, as he points out similar ruptures in cross-regional transmission in the Buddhist vocabulary, ideals, concepts, rituals and social organization. Some things spread to all regions; others spread only to some, while others never leave India. Why should this be?

Similar problems emerge when we consider the evidence presented in Nakamura’s other great comparative study, A Comparative History of Ideas. Here Nakamura widens his scope from Buddhist lands to all of Eurasia, resolutely defending the thesis that

In different areas of the world similar problems, even if not similar concepts, emerged at certain stages of cultural development…. The process of philosophical thought has shown itself to be more or less the same throughout different traditions. That is, many of the philosophical problems that arose in various cultures could be discussed synchronically. If they there were priority and posterity in terms of the time period in which any specific problem was especially discussed, the stage of the process of development of philosophical ideas were similar in different traditions for different people. Mankind has trodden similar paths in the development of his ideas.[12]

You will understand the sense of Nakamura’s claims if you are familiar with similar ideas about the rise of universal religions and philosophical systems in the so-called “axial age” of human history. Nakamura finds similar commonalities across the breadth of human history. Aquinas and the scholastics, Zhu Xi and the Song Neoconfucians, and Ramanuja and the learned Vaishnavas of his day, for example, treated similar themes and did so through similar methods (lengthy exegesis on revered axial-age texts). Nakamura sees another set of common themes in the world before the universal turn:

heterodoxies in the eyes of universal religions appeared in parallel in both India and Greece and to a great extent in China, probably because these cultural areas reached more or less similar stages in the development of civilization. Those systems of thought which related to be called heterodox have a number of things in common which may now be enumerated; 

(1) adherents thought very freely minimizing or protesting against the traditions of the past, especially those of the already established religions of the people. In doing so they were advocating new theories which seem very strange, even dangerous, to the people of their times. 

(2) There were similarities in their proponents way of living. Generally they spent a great deal of time each year traveling. Some of them taught techniques of argument (which came to be thought of as the art of proving anything ). Others sought to demonstrate the nonexistence of God and afterlife or the uselessness of commonly held notions of virtue. But whatever their teaching, because they were controversial large crowds gathered wherever they lectured or debated, great halls being built to accommodate them, and sometimes Realty offer rewards to the victorious in intellectual jousts.

(3) They were all condemned as heterodox by other ideologies or religions or for later more or less officially adopted by their respective societies.[13]

How might a science of human culture explain these happenings? Nakamura sees similarities between the intellectual trends of Warring States China, the Greek polis, and the Indian Mahājanapadas (these similarities go far beyond the paragraph excerpted above, comprising three chapters of A Comparative History of Ideas), and it is not difficult to spot other similarities in the economic, political, and technological spheres. An able historian could perhaps make a convincing argument as to how those political and economic trends would naturally lead to a certain sort of intellectual engaged in a certain sort of intellectual project. But that would be quite foreign to the work of both the Paris and California schools. 

As with any unique cultural practice that cannot be boiled down to a matter of simple incentives, the Paris folk come theoretically unequipped to explain cultural phenomena general enough to recur in multiple societies but not general enough to occur in most of them. The California path is a little easier to see: they might argue that in a decentralized yet highly urbanized political order, heterodoxy was “fit” for transmission in a way it could not have been in an earlier era with a less literate population, and in a way it would not be in a large empire capable of enforcing a universal orthodoxy. But this account would add little of value but a shallow Darwinian framing, and it would be able to explain only why heterodoxy was popular, but not why heterodox philosophers in this stage often stumbled upon similar heterodoxies (such as materialism, atomism, egoism, and so forth).

How sad! Both California and Paris school researchers hype their respective project as having the transformative potential that Darwin’s theory had on the study of biology. But both currently lack the theoretical sophistication to even attempt questions like these. We are forced back to flawed comparatives of Spengler and his ilk. Spengler’s conclusions cannot be trusted, but he has the vision to ask grand questions—questions that are at this point too grand for any science of human culture.

If you would like to read more about our attempts to forge a science of human history, see my earlier essays “Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously,” “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are.”A Study Guide For Understanding Human Society,” and “Historians, Fear Not the Psychologists.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


[1] Tanner Greer, “On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers,” The Scholar’s Stage (28 October 2020). 

[2] For an example, see Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, abridged ed., trans. Charles Francis Adkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 176-180.

[3] It is here I must admit that I only know Hegel through secondary sources, especially his critics. In addition to Marx’s famous critique, I draw on Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Leszek Kolakowski, The Main Currents of Marxism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 48-110; Paul Redding, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[4] Paul Boyer, Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the Worlds Humans Create (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 

[5] 1 U.S.C §1

[6] Boyer, Minds Make Societies

 [7] The most useful review of their differences is found in Kim Sterelny, “Cultural evolution in California and Paris,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol 62 (2017), 42-50. 

Other relevant pieces include Nicolas Claidière., Thomas Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber,  “How Darwinian is Cultural Evolution?,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2014) 369-; Alberto Acerbi and Alex Mesoudi, “If we are all cultural Darwinians what’s the fuss about? Clarifying recent disagreements in the field of cultural evolution,” Biology & Philosophy, vol 30, iss 4 (2015), 481-503; Olivier Morin,  “Reasons to be fussy about cultural evolution,” Biology & Philosophy, vol 31 (2016), 447-58.

Olivier Morin’s How Traditions Live or Die, discussed below, contains some especially devastating theoretical critiques of the California program. For a standard California critique of Parisian ideas, see Theiss Bendixen, “Sense or non-sense? A critical discussion of a recent evolutionary–cognitive approach to “folk-economic beliefs,” Evolution, Mind and Behaviour, vol 17 (2019), 29-47. Cecilia Heyes’ Cognitive Gadgets is sort of a mutant offspring of the California school, and has a useful discussion of the weaknesses of traditional California thinking and problems with the Parisian critique in its second chapter.

[8] Boyer, Minds Make Societies

[12] Jonathan Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henric, “The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation,”Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6466 (2019); Purzycki, Henrich,  Apicella, Atkinson, Baimel, Cohen, McNamara, Willard, Xygalatas, and Norenzayan,  “The evolution of religion and morality: A synthesis of ethnographic and experimental evidence from eight societies, Religion, Brain and Behavior, vol 8, iss 2 (2018), 101-132.

[10] Nakamura Hajime, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan, reprint ed. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 264.

[11] Ibid., 313-314.

[12] Nakamura Hajime, A Comparative History of Ideas, 2nd ed (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1992), 565.

[13] ibid., 183.

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I recently finished reading Henrich’s WEIRD people book and I think he addresses some of your concerns regarding the California School approach to cultural divergence.

“They cannot tell us why the Christians of New England and North Carolina share some beliefs and practices in common, but not all, nor why some aspects of Neoconfucianism were easy to export to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, while others grew deep roots only in Chinese soil.”

While Henrich doesn’t specifically address differences in adoption of Neoconfucianism between the East Asian polities, he does gives a theory for the cultural difference between New England and American South: “echoes of the culture of honour that were part of Scotland’s Segmentary lineages still affect life and death: in counties of the U.S. South, the higher percentage of Scottish or Scotch-Irish residents in the first U.S. census in 1790, the higher the murder rate is today. The cultural descendants of these migrants still tend to respond aggressively when their honour, family, or property is threatened.”

And the reason why the Scot-Irish had a stronger culture of honour compared to New Englanders was due to relative later adoption of Catholicism and its accompanying policies of breaking down of kin-intensive institutions hence the persistence of clans and honour culture.

The big takeaway I got from Henrich’s CE approach it is complex feedback loop between social (i.e. ‘institutions’) and physiological systems (psychology and biology). I’m use to thinking of feedback between social systems, economic, political etc. but the WEIRD book opened my mind to the feedback loop between culture and psychology/biology. I’ve always felt there was a connection between culture and psychology but until Henrich never had a framework to connect the dots. Some excerpts:

“Learning to read forms specialised brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition. Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code.

A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosum and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate. These biological differences between populations will emerge even if the two groups were genetically indistinguishable.

Literacy thus provides an example of how culture can change people biologically independent of any genetic differences. Culture can and does alter our brains, hormones, and anatomy, along with our perceptions, motivations, personalities, emotions, and many other aspects of our minds.”

“Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms – culture – can shape our brains, biology, and psychology including our motivations, mental abilities and decision-making biases. You can’t seperate ‘culture’ from ‘psychology’ or ‘psychology’ from ‘biology’, because culture physically trains our brains and thereby shapes how we think.”

I studied no social science or humanities (am an engineer) but I think the real value of Spengler's Decline of the West is not what it says but the cultural impact it has had, and the cultural environment that led to its writing. After all the talk of the longest century about technological and societal progress, the World War has shattered all belief in the Western civilization in many people, and Spengler's work was the one that summarized how those people felt at that time (or so I believe).

Peter Turchin's Cliodynamics does at least have a dynamic model. He maybe pushing one general (almost biological) factor, that of elite overproduction, a bit further than it can go as a singular explanation, but it does seem to have reasonable predictive elements to it that can be verified going forward.

I should add that elite overproduction isn't stated as a singular cause, but it seems the most important.

As a side-note, Jack Goldstone is the recognized precursor for some of his ideas. JG is said to be of the "California School". I am not sure if it is the same California School you mean here though.

You're setting the bar awfully high for the explanatory power of cultural evolution!

I think an epistemic re-calibration is in order. Any emergent or evolutionary system of any complexity will be subject to path dependency, dependence on minor perturbations ("butterfly effect"), evolutionary co-dependency with its environment, and other chaotic systems dynamics such that the actual behavior of the system in both its particulars and therefore also in its marco evolution could never be predicted by any theory.

It is thus no surprise that the new cultural theories "do not explain why copying would be so selective" in the case of Buddhist practices, or many other similar effects. Their "failure" is not due to their lack of theoretical sophistication, but rather to the native complexity of the systems they are describing. Even if certain genetic or psychological research does shed light on some human tendencies that may push some of these micro effects to reliably go one way or another, it is precisely because of the persistent potential variability in human behavior that culture as such exists in the first place.

In my view, the utility of this new work is less as a potential source of "scientific" prediction or explanation about specific cultural outcomes, and more as a framework for heuristic thinking about the dynamics of human societies. First and foremost, the work helps to chart a middle course between the over-reification/essentialization of human groups found in a Spengler or Hegel which are too inflexible in their understanding of how cultures and made and evolve on the one hand, and, on the other, the almost absolutist relativism of other strands of contemporary social science and culture (e.g. the nonsensical a priori egalitarianism of someone like Ibram Kendi) which have been unable to accept the fact that cultural difference does in fact have real-life implications on the outcomes for populations.

Precedent theorists such as Michel Foucault and Niklas Luhmann have done a good job at adumbrating at a conceptual level some of the structures and dynamics of complex human systems in a similar middle register. But the new evolutionary work has the merit of actually having a significant amount of empirical content drawn from across the social sciences. And, contra Foucault specifically, it does not encumber itself with a normative aversion to culture as such (perhaps because he was French, Foucault decided to characterize what amounts to banal cultural effects with ominous appellations like "power" and "biopower," providing the opportunity for his rather nuanced theory to enter popular culture with just about the most absurd and destructive embedded assumptions imaginable).


Agree that the cultural evolution lines of research are quite useful in what they are able to accomplish, even if there are gaps in what they have not been able to work out yet. But I think they might be able to get to what I seek without too much trouble. The Paris school idea about cultural attractors, in particular, seem like useful way to conceptualize many of the questions I bring up–provided, perhaps, that cultural attractors can themselves be culturally bound. It might explain why certain themes translate over much easier from one culture to another, i.e., those themes match easier with the attractors specific to that culture. The question then becomes how those attractors are transmitted from one generation to the next. Cecilia Heyes' Cognitive Gadgets might provide one model for that sort of thing. but it is in the baby stages so far.

Reminds me of what I've heard of Scott's notion of legibility. As I understand it, Scott argues that most polities strive to impose some sort of concreteness on their subjects. A reification of names perhaps. Retconned onto the work of Spengler and those within the particular school of ideational conceits he emerged from and in, this would make the course of a "civilization" a process and, ultimately, a crisis of legibility. Given the central problem of humankind's collision with reality, the problem of compression or that of finding a health fit of infinite universe within tiny finite skull, this would suggest that a Spenglerian understanding of history is one where those compressions (or attractors perhaps?) that are unhealthy reach a critical mass where their combined toxicity overwhelms those that are healthy or indifferent.

I suspect most of what accounts for the survival of one cultural framing over another is currently illegible to humankind with the tools it has at hand and is felt only only through a sense darkly. It could be compared to only seeing that part of the iceberg that appears above the waves while the bulk remains dangerously unseen. I suspect a better comparison is mistaking a a few ice flakes sampled from the visible part of the iceberg for the whole thing.

The scenes the hypothetical Axial Age supposedly unfolded in were environments where political dominance had not consolidated into a single Macedonia, Maurya, or Chin/Han-flavored holding. As has been argued since antiquity, a fractured political landscape is a fractured mental landscape. When such fractured human polities consolidate, an outcome largely driven by barely glimpsed or even barely glimpsable mass processes, those samples or artifacts reified as embodying, making legible, or explaining how such a situation came about are possibly as much selected for reasons of vividness, availability, convenience, spite, or randomness as their actual contribution to political or other forms of success. They may be carried forward as vestigial relics of a prematurely optimized summation of past glories than anything of overall significance (assuming, with too much generosity perhaps, that you're capable of judging what is significant overall in any useful way). Those who reify a sharp, pointy and thus extra stabby abstraction as an explanation for their destiny may be doomed to be impaled upon it, arguably as happened to Spengler and some of his contemporaries like Henri Bergson personally. Premature optimization as the root of all evils indeed.

People and politicians understand politics on a personal scale. Human heuristics are probably fairly optimal for the division of power in intimate proximity. This is probably why history as a discipline in its primordial form and as it was for most of its history was essentially a subgenre of mirrors for princes: the passage of time was easiest to grasp when framed as a war of high school cliques on a mass scale. Herodotus and a few historians of Mediterranean antiquity may have written mirrors for publics since there existed nascent and fleeting middling classes with some parallels to early modern Europe for a time. In the Western tradition, Spengler is only an elaboration on Hesiod, a Promethean figure that some argue preceded even the Homer or Homers who produced the Iliad and Odyssey. I suspect the dueling visions of Paris and Californa are only a few steps removed from Spengler and thus Hesiod. All Theogony all the time while the actual reality human destiny unfolds within remains a Pandora's jar.

> The California path is a little easier to see: they might argue that in a decentralized yet highly urbanized political order, heterodoxy was “fit” … But this account would add little of value but a shallow Darwinian framing,

This is a feature not a bug. Existing explanations are often Darwinian in all but name. ("The times suited X", means "X was Darwinanly fit given the conditions of the times"). So we should expect the Darwinian explanations to just subsume a lot of existing explanations.

That said, I'm bemused by people trying to re-import evolutinary thinking into the humanties, where it started. And not just in the implicit form of "the times suited X". Linguists like the Grimms, theorists of common law, Burke, Mandeville and the whole cast of Scottish Enlighteners talked about the accumulation and variation of cultural features. The tradition comes down to the modern day via peole like Hayek. Malthus and Darwin are really offshoots of this.

> and it would be able to explain only why heterodoxy was popular, but not why heterodox philosophers in this stage often stumbled upon similar heterodoxies (such as materialism, atomism, egoism, and so forth).

This might be an illusion. The axial age gave us not just materialism but also Parminedian idealism and more. Basically the cultural conditions allowed people to explore the whole space of philosophical options. So we can find the whole space covered in each culture — though perhaps divided up a bit differently.

Yes all good points. I somewhat overstated my case. Certainly all the actual dynamics of cultural transmission are subject to empirical inquiry and may result in (perhaps even robust) predictive power for cultural evolution.

But as a basic mathematical fact, the actual causes of behaviors of emergent, non-deterministic (chaotic) systems are inherently the kinds of things that cover their own tracks, and for the purposes of studying something like culture are a function not only of it initial conditions, but ultimately many things (exogenous shocks) that happen to these systems in real time. Thus, at some level we have strong theoretical grounds for the notion that this kind of work has an absolute limit to its predictive power, particularly if what we are interested in explaining is the specific and contingent small-scale empirical outcomes of specific empirical societies (e.g. why no sex for Chinese Buddhists) and/or explaining the transmission of specific small-scale effects to specific large-scale effects.

More to your own larger point in comparing this work with sweeping efforts like Spenger's, what's interesting about systems of this kind (i.e. finite/bounded, non-conservative, and non-linear systems) is that while they have relatively chaotic/arbitrary small-scale effects, when you move to and stay at just one or two further levels up in scale/abstraction and start focusing on the dynamics of the systems themselves, they (can) become substantially more structured (and sometimes even deterministic).

Thus, if this kind of work wants to match the ambitions of a Spengler, it needs to develop its own version of a macroeconomics to pair with its current microeconomics-like structure/focus. Or another rough analogy might be Copernican astronomy versus Newtonian mechanics. The former did a lot of empirical measurements and ad hoc calculations to predict things like the future position of Venus. But Newton, using the concept of gravity and math at a higher level of abstraction (of course) enabled us to predict not only the future position of Venus, but the dynamics massive bodies in general (as macroeconomics uses dynamic general equilibrium models to structure its understanding of economic behavior "from above"). Obviously the Paris school's attractors are sort of embryonic attempts at this kind of generality. But their approach is basically inductive à la Copernicus. What we need a more sophisticated and comprehensive parametrization of human culture and a dynamic modeling of its evolution tested against empirical findings. Someone like Emmanuel Todd and his predecessors have done this at a kind of heuristic level with basic statistical data, and the Annales school at a conceptual/historical level, but perhaps with modern computing power it could be made much more robust.

Indeed, to me, the patterns of macro dynamics of human society are not only too obvious to ignore, but also much more interesting and important than the minor variations in small-scale cultural practices. I'm thinking of things like the conditions precedent for the invention of agriculture or writing or the fact that in settled states different political typologies (democracy, authoritarianism, etc.) appear to be semi-stable local equilibria which can, like phase changes in atomic/molecular structure, go from one to the other if the right conditions and perturbations are present. Of course unlike Newtonian mechanics or even modern macroeconomics, this higher level for human culture would only addressable through robust computational simulations (if it were mathematized at all…), but I have been looking for a long time (to no avail) for attempts in this direction. But if we can now predict things like protein folding based on basic inputs like genetic sequence alone, I imagine that, possibly, with the right models and/or datasets, we should be able to start to shed some light on these broader macro dynamics of culture within a few decades.

Taking up Grant K's sensible points – the problem with human social stuff is that it comprises multiple sites of Darwinian selection which are occurring simultaneously and not necessarily in sync: just to cite a random few 'levels': there is individual level status / virtue signalling tied to the biological sexual selection market; there is international competition between nation states affecting in turn the organization of production and the reproduction of culture via national schooling (think the ubiquity of Cold War era socio-psychological framings); there is the 'Marxist' level of competing modes of production (think Neolithic farmers versus hunter gatherers in Europe); there are micro competitions within the mode of production under modern capitalism between social market, liberal market, and authoritarian market systems; there is institutional competition between churches, universities, high schools, soft drink corporations,……etc , etc.

What is worse from the p.o.v of a reductive explanation is that each level of competition/selection impacts the others in unpredictable ways – e.g the 'developmental states' of E Asia thrived under the conditions of Cold War competition and one can't really assess the evolutionary success or failure of that model of the economy outside the context of that other level of inter-state competition. So some levels are 'embedded' in others, some aren't and the types of embedding shift historically too!

If the above is true how do we see convergent patters in 'big history' (e.g Axial Age religions)? Perhaps the answer is some sort of staggeringly complex functionalism, in which the multiple levels of selection described above nonetheless end up converging on functionally equivalent forms through their interactions, perhaps rather as the human body utilizes Darwinian processes at multiple levels (neural networks, the adaptive immune system) which harmonize at the level of functioning and which have a combined developmental history with clearly defined phases of development. But that seems like a dodgy analogy!

I don't find the difference between Chinese rejection of sexual rituals and Tibetan adoption of sexual rituals to pose much of a challenge to the notion of attractors; this just suggests that attractors have dimension. Leaning on the systems theory a little more, it could either be a basin of attraction or a "hill of repulsion" but either way is culturally significant. A greater challenge would be indifference; scattered adoption, tepid commitment, and no differences between them.

A different angle on the problem is how compatible it is with the previous cultural complex; I know in India there were sacred notions of sex and Hinduism had sexual rituals before the rise of Buddhism. I don't know of any such practices in China; what were the previous practices like in Tibet? Another way to say this is that culture is like the weather: what types of practices will catch on tomorrow? The same types as today.