Posted by: Dan | January 20, 2009

Migration and Cultural Evolution

A recent installment in Nature‘s Being Human series caught my passing interest: Migration: An engine for social change (subscription required, email me for help accessing). The meat of the article however:

We believe that immigration generates far more cultural evolution today than does conquest. Flows of migrants are often substantial. Foreign-born people, mainly from Latin America and Asia, compose about 11% of the current US population, a figure close to historical averages. The richer countries of Europe, such as Sweden, Norway and Germany, once the source of streams of immigrants to the United States and elsewhere, are now receiving people from Asia, Africa and poorer European countries such as Poland and the Balkan states.

Likewise, the growth of ancient empires seems to have owed much to the assimilation of border peoples. Conquering elites, such as the Mongols in China, the Mughals in India and the Goths in Rome, largely adapted to their highly successful host culture rather than the other way around. In every case, these durable systems had institutions — the Confucian merit-based bureaucracy, the Hindu system of self-governing castes, Roman law — that endure today in one form or another.

These examples support the idea that societies that attract immigrants tend to have ideas and institutions that cause them to be richer, less violent and less exploitative than the societies that supply them. The Goths were fleeing chaos on the steppe. Christianity, with its concern for the poor and humble, grew mainly by voluntary conversion to eventually become the official religion in the Roman Empire. Confucian humanism, with its concern for good government, replaced the predatory and quarrelsome landed elite as the backbone of Chinese society. Hindu tolerance and productive organization of cultural diversity led to one of the world’s wealthiest societies in medieval times. Medieval Islam attracted converts spanning from North Africa to southeast Asia because it supported effective statecraft, intellectual advancement and trade on a vast scale.

This is of course a truism — people immigrate for a variety of reasons and such movements often have powerful impacts on the cultures of both host and migrant culture. Such interactions between cultures on the move are the basis for much study in geography. I’m not so sure however that the authors of this article, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, can get away with saying that “immigration generates far more cultural evolution today than does conquest.”

Let me say that economic trade is an important part of cultural exchange, but I agree that the actual exchange of the people practicing a set of customs and traditions is a much more effective agent of change. That includes immigration, of course. But it also includes what happens when cultures are replaced outright. Let’s not pretend that elements of conquest haven’t occurred in human history, ugly though they certainly were, and that they have had equally powerful effects on cultural evolution.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is the most well-known book on this phenomenon that I’m aware of. The European conquest of the Americas has had an undeniable effect on the socio-political landscape, yet those European settlers marginalized the Native American culture more than assimilated it. It’s true though that Diamond incorporates immigration into his argument in describing the spread of agriculture and civilization across the continents.

It’s also true that Richerson and Boyd are focusing primarily about the customs and traditions associated with cultures and less about the technologies and resulting economic and socio-political successes that facilitate the spread of such customs, whereas Diamond wrote more about the spread of specific civilizations and their advancements themselves.

Richerson and Boyd say that “…societies that attract immigrants tend to have ideas and institutions that cause them to be richer, less violent and less exploitative than the societies that supply them.” Of course this is all very relative. The societies that have attracted immigrants too were violent and exploitative of immigrants, as they are today. All this is saying that people rationally will choose more productive and stable cultures, insofar as much as they can discern such differences for their immediate circumstances, in trying to prosper.

Leaving us still with a conclusion that the real driver of cultural change, occurring through both human migrations and conquests, is technological advancement. This is also the undercurrent behind the advancement of civilization over the past 10,000 years, and the theme of Jacob Bronowski’s remarkable documentary from the ’70s, The Ascent of Man.


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