As you may have noticed, I’m returning these days to the theme of cultural evolution, the subject of my 2010 book, Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change. Cultural evolution is the slow, steady advance of humanity’s most essential cultural values (e.g, peace, justice, and ecological sustainability) toward a closer fit with reality. Thus, for example, “the arc of human history” bends toward peace, justice, and ecological sustainability and away from racism, sexism, hateful nationalism, and violent response to personal and societal identity crisis.
Hold it! (I can almost hear the chorus.) How can we hold out any hope for values-evolution, in the face of so much apparent evidence (these days) to the contrary? Well, the answer is to be found in the eddies of resistance to the cultural-evolutionary dynamic.
Eddies are counter-clockwise whirlpools of resistance in a flowing stream. One could almost say that they desperately try to reverse the prevailing flow. Cultural eddies (you’ll see how well the metaphor works) are counter-cultural vortices that struggle against the flow of cultural evolution. Here’s one example: “No, women should not rise to positions of authority over men!”
Cultural evolution, however, arrives in waves, cultural “value waves,” one on the way up and one on the way down. The up wave brings the promise of cultural evolution. Things get better, people get wiser, and the convergenge is toward cooperation. But then there’s the down wave, the backlash. Things seem worse, people get angrier, and there is only divergence.
The question of our age is simple. Will the falling wave swamp the rising wave? Or will the rising wave overcome? The older value set has inertia on its side; the newer packs momentum. I’ll always bet on momentum against inertia.
So, here’s a final thought for now.
Ours today is a continent divided not so much by a geographical, altitudinal watershed as by a seemingly unbridgeable cultural and attitudinal barrier. It does matter that certain regions of our land align with particular values-complexes. And it is significant that one can, with some success, predict the racial, social, gender, and even scientific (or anti-scientific) leanings of people from here as opposed to there.
But America is not really divided between the good and the bad, the bright and the dull, or the generous and the selfish. Our current dilemma is to be found in the eternal tension between hope and fear. Often it may seem that fear is winning; but it never truly can, for it springs from uncertainty and ignorance. Hope is always grounded in a clear vision of what is and what can yet be. And there’s the hope in hope.