Cultural Darwinism; or, Why I Love London

There’s a charity shop just down from where I work called “Save The Tribes”. Its street-facing window is plastered with pictures of toothy grins from African children in native dress. It’s not the sort of place you really notice- any high street has several shops like it- but it struck me that cultures are an interesting phenomenon. Cultures, to be precise, live and die. Save The Tribe is concerned with dying ones – ones that are losing ground to more virulent cultures. 

The whys and wherefores of charity aside – and it’s up to you whether charity is a good thing or not – it’s odd to think that you can somehow keep a culture alive with regular donations of money.
Of course, we do think like that. Culture is a physical commodity like any other, apparently. All sorts of incentives exist to promote certain cultures, such as the promotion of Welsh language through street signs and the Scottish Parliament’s emphasis on using Gaelic. The cause of these incentives, I’ve always assumed, is a Western liberal guilt: this is, after all, the culture that once considered it a god-given mission to spread Christianity, English and Democracy to all corners of the globe, a la Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden:
Send forth the best ye breed–

Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

It goes without saying that the ancestors of those grinning African children were rescued from that wild half-devil, half-child natural state…for better or worse. Modern interpretation of Imperialism tends towards an emphasis on the Conrad-orientated perspective: the Empire was, we assume, a nightmarish assault on the very borders of morality, consisting of slavery, abuse and the very worst degradations one human being could visit on another. Heart of Darkness more or less sums this position up:
These chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .
Since 1950 we’ve all more or less had the idea that Imperialism was a Bad Thing. Whether it really was or not is up for debate and largely depends on your conscience. The British Empire was the empire that spread Tea, slavery, democracy, religious freedom, organized brutality and medicine to all corners of the globe. It is the institution that gave the world the modern postal service and the concentration camp. It was good and bad.
All of this is preamble – I don’t give two figs for morality, about which there is no ultimate Truth. What interests me is the fact the Imperialism is a phenomenon of some cultures and not of others. Human beings, wherever they live, have a number of shared characteristics, including how they behave and think, and a small number of regional variations. Taking the long view, the many cultures of the world are largely homologous, yet some are more virulent. Why is that?
I am developing the theory that some cultures build empires while others don’t because of a sort of Darwinism that exists in society. A while back Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene expounded the theory that certain words and ideas, which he called ‘memes’, perpetuate themselves through human minds much like viruses or living organisms do. Memes, he argued, are fighting a war of natural selection, competing against one another for dominance. Success depends on fitness – not the fitness of being the best, per se, but the fitness of being the most virulent, the longest-lasting or the most invasive. That might be horseshit, but it might not. It occurs to me that you could apply the same theory to cultures and come away with a unique understanding of the dominance of certain societies.
They say that the Roman Empire was so pervasive – at the time, the largest empire in history – because when the Romans came across a new culture with its own pantheon of gods, they did not seek to destroy these competing religions but instead integrated them into their own philosophy. Thus, when the romans conquered the Celts of England, Sulis the Celtic god became Minerva the Roman god, with whom she shared many qualities, while Poeninus became Jupiter. Thus was order preserved. The Romans didn’t seek to destroy the indigenous culture – they absorbed it. The fall of Rome, some historians would argue, was due to the growth of Christianity with its singular, jealous god: a god who demanded that there should be no other. Indigenous cultures – the peregrinus – became discomfited by this change and hastened the end of the glorious SPQR. It’s certainly an interesting theory.
This story is of relevance to my theory because it illustrates that Roman Culture did not merely dominate other competing cultures but absorbed them and took their strengths for itself, much as one bacteria will encounter another and swap genes from Plasmid to Plasmid: the very mechanism that causes useful traits to propagate through an entire bacterial colony and makes for an excellent evolutionary tactic. The same mechanism is true of Western Culture.
We call it Globalization. There are McDonalds and Coca-Cola stands from here to the edge of the known world – a fact that causes many of us to feel guilty. Businessmen from Iceland to New Zealand wear Savile Row suits, talk into iPhones and eat Spaghetti Bolognese as a consequence of the supreme virulence of Western culture. Even cultures we could compare in terms of population, though not in land-coverage, are Westernized. The Chinese, for example, are learning English because it gives them a competitive edge. The Indians, meanwhile, are developing a craze for skin-lightening and plastic surgery in an attempt to look more European. This is all very unusual and speaks of a profound edge that Western culture – in particular American and British culture – has over others.
Don’t let me be misunderstood: I’m not saying that Anglo-American culture is inherently superior to other cultures. When we talk about Darwinism, many people are inclined to mistake “fittest” for “superior”. That’s not how evolution works. A slug, for example, is as evolved as a human being. They have just evolved in different directions. Slugs are kings of the Detritovore territory. Humans dominate the mammalian territory. One is not better than the other: the fact that both exist at this particular time is the key factor. They have survived. They are effective. They are, therefore, fit.
"Fit" in this case meaning "pretty gross".

“Fit” in this case meaning “pretty gross”.

Why Anglo-American culture should be, at this particular stage in human history, so pervasive is a question of significance. I mentioned previously that the Roman empire was so effective because it absorbed. The same could be said of Western cultures: we regularly absorb cultures, strip away the bits that don’t suit us and feed it back to its originators in a new form. The Balti curry, to take one example, was invented in Birmingham. It has no equivalent in Indian cuisine. The vuvuzela, that noisome horn that hoots incessantly at football matches, is a plastic Western version of a traditional Antelope horn made in Botswana. The Savile Row suit is a collection of different garments with a lurid history – the tie from the Croatian Cravat, the Regency waistcoat, French breeches, and Russian Cavalry wear – turned into a standard style. And so on, endlessly. Even the innocuous Spaghetti Bolognese – which many would consider a prime example of Italian cuisine – is a curious English version of a traditional Italian dish to which it bears only a scant resemblance. There is nothing the Anglo-Saxons cannot bastardize, simplify, homogenize and standardize beyond recognition.
Pictured: God only knows.

Pictured: God only knows.

The city I currently live in – London – is the epitome of that goal. I was standing in a grocery store recently, engaged in that time-honored British tradition of queuing. Ahead of me the people were speaking nine different languages – nine! – from Slovenian to Pharsi. Yet every single one offered a jaunty “thank you!” in English to the cashier when their change was handed over. This is Western culture at its most virulent.
Therein lies its power – its fitness, if you like. Western culture is evolutionarily successful because it absorbs and infests other cultures. Our forbears used guns and missionaries to spread their empires – our modern empires spread themselves. They have become living things, much like Dawkins’ memes. Westernization – even the kind that emphasizes protection of smaller, less competitive cultures, as in “Save The Tribes” – is an evolutionary process, an ultimate refinement.
To what, we might ask? A perfect society, one would hope. Time will tell.
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