Choosing Goals for Intentional Cultural Evolution

ei-lgI wholeheartedly endorse Peter Richerson’s call for scientists to become advocates.  As he suggests, the traditional image of the “objective” scientist, above the fray, was never accurate.  And we have come to a point in the evolution of societies where the human sciences must play a pivotal role.  I say this in the context of the growing evidence that climate change risks catastrophic outcomes for humans and thousands of other species 1.

In our paper in Brain and Behavior Sciences, we argued that evolutionary theory provides a framework for intentionally influencing cultural evolution. In the spirit of this view, Dennis Embry and I laid out a public health framework for identifying the key aspects of human functioning that could constitute the goals for intentional cultural change 2.  Specifically, if we simply begin with mortality and work back from there, a clear and measurable set of criteria for “the good society” emerge.

Begin with the incidence of death. Surely the vast majority of humans can agree that we want to minimize premature death. What most people don’t realize is that when you start with that goal, the need to prevent many behavioral and environmental conditions becomes clear.

Public health practice evolved out of sometimes desperate efforts to reduce epidemic disease.  After the Bubonic Plague decimated Europe in the 14th century, we evolved systems for tracking the incidence and prevalence of this and other epidemics.  And we evolved measures such as quarantine and sanitation to prevent the spread of such diseases.  When infectious diseases came under control in more developed countries, chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer became the dominant killers. So public health added the monitoring of these diseases to its repertoire and began to search for the risk factors for these diseases.  As risk factors were identified—such as cigarette smoking—we began to monitor their incidence and prevalence to try to reduce them.  But in addition to behavioral risk factors such as smoking, a sedentary life style, and unhealthful eating there are environmental conditions that affect health behaviors or directly influence disease.

And here is where it gets interesting. If you said that the only justification for targeting an aspect of our culture for change was that it affected life expectancy, the entire panoply of non-nurturing environmental conditions would come into play.  Because the evidence is now clear that the kind of non-nurturing family, school, workplace, and community conditions that are far too common contribute directly and indirectly to cardiovascular disease and cancer the two leading causes of death in the U.S.

In The Nurture Effect, I defined nurturance in terms of four features each of which is relevant to preventing the pathways to fatalities.  Here I enumerate them with examples of their relevance to longevity.

  • Minimize toxic biological and social conditions.
    • Low levels of omega 3 in the diet is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
    • Children who grow up in families that are marked by high levels of poverty or abuse have a higher rate of cardiovascular disease as adults 3.
    • Children who grow up in families with harsh and inconsistent discipline are more likely to develop the following behaviors that are well-established risk factors for heart disease and cancer: drug abuse, depression, and academic failure.
    • Toxic social conditions increase people’s materialism and undermine communitarian values 4. Materialistic values are a major influence on climate change, which threatens the lives of millions 1.
  • Richly reinforce prosocial behavior and values.
    • Programs that reinforce children’s cooperation and self-regulation in elementary school have a lower risk of drug abuse, suicidal behavior, and antisocial behavior as adults and higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance 5.
    • Each of the many evidence-based family interventions that has been shown to prevent problem behavior focuses on helping parents to increase their positive reinforcement for diverse forms of prosocial behavior 6, 7.
  • Limit opportunities and influences for the development of problem behavior.
  • Promote psychological flexibility, which is the mindful pursuit of one’s values even in the face of significant psychological and environmental obstacles.
    • Clinical interventions that promote psychological flexibility have been shown to improve outcomes for people with problems as diverse as cigarette smoking, schizophrenia, diabetes, and depression, all of which affect life expectancy 6.

In sum, I am arguing that our goal for cultural evolution could be to increase the prevalence of nurturing environments. I want to be clear that I am not arguing that this is the one true goal. I do not believe that science tells us what our goals and values should be.  Rather I am arguing that this goal may organize what is needed to improve human wellbeing.

The exciting thing about the Social Evolution Forum is that we have the potential to come together around a set of concrete goals and aspirations for the direction we want society to move. Once we have chosen directions that we want to see cultural evolution take, we should organize our science to identify the malleable influences on cultural evolution that can be exploited to foster the changes that we advocate. In doing so, we can develop our science in ways that contribute directly to the changes we seek.  And if we are explicit about the changes we seek, we can use our methods to increase the effectiveness of our advocacy 2.

In closing, I want to mention that such bald talk of intentional cultural change may raise the specter of unwanted behavioral control for some. As a civil libertarian and behaviorist, I am happy to discuss that issue.


  1. Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Biglan, A., & Embry, D.D. (2013). A framework for intentional cultural change. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 2, 95–104.
  3. Galobardes, B., Lynch, J. W., & Smith, G. D. (2008). Is the association between childhood socioeconomic circumstances and cause-specific mortality established? Update of a systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 62(5), 387-390.
  4. Kasser, T. (2016). The psychology of materialism. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 489-514.
  5. Kellam, S.B., Brown, C.H., Poduska, J., Ialongo, N., Wang, W., …Wilcox, H.C. (2008). Effects of a universal classroom behavior management program in first and second grades on young adult behavioral, psychiatric, and social outcomes. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 95(Suppl. 1), S5–S28.
  6. Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. Oakland, CA: NewHarbinger.
  7. Biglan, A., Flay, B. R., Embry, D. D., & Sandler, I. (2012). Nurturing environments and the next generation of prevention research and practice. American Psychologist, 67(4), 257-271.
  8. Richardson, J. L., Radziszewska, B., Dent, C. W., & Flay, B. R. (1993). Relationship between after-school care of adolescents and substance use, risk taking, depressed mood, and academic achievement. Pediatrics, 92(1), 32-38.

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