Tradition is Smarter Than You Are: Understanding the Power of Cultural Evolution and its Impact on Human Survival and Success



Jul 25, 20233 min read


Tradition is Smarter Than You Are: Understanding the Power of Cultural Evolution and its Impact on Human Survival and Success

In today's fast-paced world, where technological advancements and innovative solutions dominate the conversation, it's easy to overlook the value of tradition and cultural evolution. We often think that our own intelligence and problem-solving abilities are enough to navigate through life successfully. However, as research has shown, tradition and cultural practices play a crucial role in our survival and success as a species.

In his book "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are," author Joseph Henrich explores the idea that humans are not as intelligent as we believe ourselves to be. He argues that our success as a species is not solely based on our ability to problem solve and develop novel solutions to challenges. Instead, it is our adherence to cultural practices and traditions that have been passed down through generations that ultimately ensure our survival.

Henrich provides numerous examples to support his argument. One such example is the case of a mother who refuses to follow traditional practices handed down to her. This unwillingness to trust in the wisdom of past generations results in sickness and early death for members of her family. Henrich argues that cultural evolution is often much smarter than we are, as these traditions have evolved over time to meet local challenges and ensure our survival.

One key point Henrich makes is that customs, traditions, and cultural practices are subject to Darwinian selection. They stick around the longest when they are adaptive and beneficial for our survival. The individuals who follow these traditions may not fully understand how or why they work, but their adherence to them ensures their survival. In some cases, understanding the details of how these traditions work may even reduce their efficacy.

This idea of legibility, or the need for the state to understand and control its population, is also explored by James C. Scott in his book "Seeing Like a State." Scott argues that successful societies rely on tacit knowledge, which is messy and purposeless from an outsider's perspective. However, in the pursuit of legibility and uniformity, these vital aspects of culture and tradition are often lost.

As our world continues to change rapidly, with traditions and customs giving way to rationalism and modernization, it becomes essential to consider the value of tradition and cultural evolution. So how can we incorporate these insights into our own lives and decision-making processes? Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Embrace the wisdom of tradition: Take the time to understand and appreciate the customs and traditions that have been passed down to you. Recognize that they have evolved over time to ensure our survival and success as a species. Trust in their wisdom and consider the potential benefits they offer.
  • 2. Use cultural practices as a guide: When faced with challenges or decisions, consider how cultural practices and traditions can inform your choices. These practices have often been refined through generations of trial and error, making them valuable sources of guidance and insight.
  • 3. Preserve and adapt traditions: As our world continues to change, it's important to preserve and adapt traditions to ensure their continued relevance and effectiveness. Find ways to incorporate tradition into your own life while also embracing the advancements of the modern world. This balance allows us to benefit from the wisdom of the past while embracing the opportunities of the future.

In conclusion, tradition and cultural evolution are not outdated or irrelevant concepts. They play a vital role in our survival and success as a species. By understanding and embracing the wisdom of tradition, using cultural practices as a guide, and preserving and adapting traditions, we can navigate the complexities of our changing world with greater wisdom and insight. So, let us not forget that tradition is indeed smarter than we are.

(Note: This article is a combination of content from "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are" and "5 Ways To Factor Generative AI Into Tech Product Strategy")

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