Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
According to the theory of cultural evolution, rituals and other cultural elements evolve in the context of human beings. They depend on us for their reproduction, and sometimes help us feel good and accomplish our goals, reproductive and otherwise. Ritual performances, like uses of language, exhibit a high degree of variation; ritual performances change over time, and some changes are copied, some are not. As with genetic mutation, ritual novelty is constantly emerging.
The following presents several ecological metaphors for ritual adaptation: sexual selection, the isolated island, and the clearcut forest. Once these metaphors are established, I will explain how they apply to ritual, and suggest some policy recommendations based on this speculation.
Signal and Beauty
A well-known aspect of sexual selection, in evolutionary biology, is the theory that characteristics like the tail of a peacock evolved as direct signals of some trait important for natural selection. The handicap principle suggests that cumbersome secondary sexual characteristics evolved as costly signals of mate quality: they are hard-to-fake, hence reliable, signals of traits such as the ability to survive while encumbered, or low parasite load, or being the correct species, or some other auspicious trait.
A less well-known possibility, surprising in its arbitrariness, is the sensory exploitation or sensory bias hypothesis: that traits evolved to capitalize on some pre-existing sensory capacity for pleasure and beauty. Under this framework, animals have built-in sensory and discriminatory capacity – that is, aesthetic capacity. This capacity is then exploited in sexual selection, directing the color, sound, shape, and other features of sexual displays. Frog calls evolve not to signal any particular adaptive trait, but to optimally stimulate frog hearing organs; guppies get orange spots because the fruit they like is orange. Female wolf spiders like leg tufts on male wolf spiders because they look cool, even if their species hasn’t yet evolved them.
Very similar to sexual selection is the communication between plants and their animal pollinators or seed distributors. Plants provide a signal – the color or scent of flowers or fruit, for example – and animals choose whether to respond. Did animal visual systems evolve to exploit plants (to detect flowers or ripe fruit), or did plant coloration evolve to attract animals to spread their genetic material? Since animal color vision is extremely conservative and does not vary much with the animal’s ecological situation, it appears that the latter is true. Insects have had the same color vision since before flowering plants existed, and neither bird nor primate color vision varies much depending on the colors in the animal’s environment. The sensory capacity precedes the existence of the signal (although the perception might be later honed in the brain). Bee orchids mimic the pre-existing preference of their pollinating species for the appearance of their conspecifics, in a dizzying reversal of the orange guppy situation noted above.
Either of these frameworks – costly signals or arbitrary beauty – can theoretically be the basis for runaway sexual selection. They are not mutually exclusive.
Memetic selection, like sexual selection and the interactions of plants and pollinating animals, relies on communication of signals and the stimulation of brains outside the signaling organism. I have previously described ritual in terms of the costly signaling theory: people engage in ritual in order to signal such desirable traits as cooperativeness, peacefulness, and industriousness. Rituals that optimally signal these traits are reproduced. This explanation ignored the sensory exploitation hypothesis: that people engage in rituals because they feel good for essentially arbitrary reasons. Again, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Why are island animals and plants so beautiful? The birds of paradise evolved on islands and are some of the most varied and beautiful birds, showing off extreme secondary sexual characteristics. Cichlids in isolated lakes in Africa – islands of water – evolved bright and varied colors. Even the lowly fruit fly, when it migrated to Hawaii, evolved into beautiful forms, perhaps a thousand species, including the colorful “picture-wing” flies sometimes called the birds of paradise of the insect kingdom. The males use visual, auditory, and even tactile signals to establish their mating suitability.
In biological evolution, the maintenance of arbitrary aesthetic preferences is possible as long as the costs are not too high (pp. 296-298). In virgin environments, such as islands or isolated lakes, lucky immigrants find that their co-evolved parasites and predators are not present; the costs of maintaining some arbitrary preference for beauty in mating may therefore be decreased. The fewer parasites and predators you have to contend with, the more you can focus on within-species competition, often expressed in complex (and beautiful) adaptations for mating display.
In differential sexual selection theory, animals (such as fruit flies) display genetic variation in female choosiness: some females are aesthetes and will only mate with ideal males; others are philistines and will mate with any vaguely suitable male. When a species lands in a pristine, unexploited environment for the first time, the population is small; choosiness is a hindrance and will be selected against. Only promiscuous philistine females will get a chance to mate. As a side effect, combinations of genes that would never take place under choosiness occur; as the population increases, so does genetic and phenotypic variation. This provides ample variation for aesthetic selection to work on, and aesthete females then have room to reemerge.
In biology as well as economics, any empty niche is crying out to be filled, and will be filled by the best thing available, in context. Australia made wolves out of marsupials. Islands make land predators out of crabs, grazers out of parrots, and tree dwellers out of kangaroos and skinks. Whoever shows up, gets a job, regardless of whether they are well-suited to it by millions of years of evolution. In the case of fruit flies, they get many jobs, taking over insect duties at many elevations and environments that would, on the mainland, be performed by insects with a longer niche-specific adaptation history.
The isolated island is distinguished from the mainland by its original pristine state, a low diversity in founding species, and a high level of sexual (and therefore possibly sensory-biased) selection.
When a mature natural ecosystem is destroyed by fire, clearcutting, or plowing, a particular process of succession follows. First, plants with a short life history that specialize in colonization emerge; these first-stage plants are often called weeds, or “weedy ephemerals,” and make up a large number of agricultural pest species. But these initial colonizers specialize in colonization at the expense of long-term competitiveness for light. Second, a wave of plants that are not as good at spreading their seed, but a little better at monopolizing light, gain dominance. These are followed by plants that are even better at long-term competition; eventually, absent human interference, the original weeds become rare.
Sometimes, however, the landscape is frozen at the first stage of succession; this is known as agriculture. Second-wave competitive plants are prevented from growing; the land is cleared again and again, and the seeds of a single species planted, providing an optimal environment for short-life-history weeds. Since the survival of humans and their livestock depends on only a few species of plants, other plants that would eventually out-compete the weeds must not be permitted to grow. Instead, herbicides are applied, resulting in selection for better and better weeds.
This is not an indictment of agriculture. Again, without these methods, most humans on earth would die. But the precariousness of the situation is a result of evolutionary processes. Perverse results are common in naive pest management strategies; Kaneshiro (pp. 13-14) suggests that eradication efforts for the Mediterranean fruit fly in California in the 1980s, despite temporarily reducing the population size substantially, paradoxically resulted in the adaptation of the fruit fly to winter conditions and subsequent population explosions. Pesticide resistance in plants and animals (and even diseases) frequently follows a similarly perverse course.
Ecosystems are made up of “selfish” organisms that display variation, and undergo natural and sexual selection. Ecosystems seem to self-repair because any temporarily empty niche will quickly be filled by any organism that shows up to do the job, no matter how ill-suited it may be at first. Economies self-repair in the same manner: a product or service that is not being supplied is an opportunity.
Language appears to be remarkably self-repairing: deaf school children in Nicaragua, provided only with lipreading training of dubious effectiveness, developed their own language, which within two generations acquired the core expressive characteristics of any human language.
While inherited ritual traditions may be extremely useful and highly adapted to their contexts, ritual may exhibit a high degree of self-repair as well. And since the context of human existence has changed so rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, ancestral traditions may be poorly adapted to new contexts; self-repair for new contexts may be a necessity. The human being himself has not changed much, but his environment, duties, modes of subsistence, and social interdependencies have changed dramatically.
Memetic selection is like sexual selection, in that it is based on signal reception by a perceiving organism (another human or group of humans). Rituals are transmitted by preferential copying (with variation); even novel rituals, like the rock concert, the desert art festival, the school shooting, or the Twitter shaming, must be attended to and copied in order to survive and spread.
Some rituals are useful, providing group cohesion and bonding, the opportunity for costly signaling, free-rider detection and exclusion, and similar benefits. Some rituals have aesthetic or affective benefits, providing desirable mental states; these need not be happy, as one of the most popular affective states provided by songs is poignant sadness. Rituals vary in their usefulness, communication efficiency, pleasurability, and prestige; they will be selected for all these qualities.
Ritual is not a single, fungible substance. Rather, an entire human culture has many ritual niches, just like an ecosystem: rituals specialized for cohesion and bonding may display adaptations entirely distinct from rituals that are specialized for psychological self-control or pleasurable feelings. Marriage rituals are different from dispute resolution rituals; healing rituals are distinct from criminal justice rituals. Humans have many signaling and affective needs, and at any time many rituals are in competition to supply them.
Cultural Clearcutting: Ritual Shocks
Ordinarily, rituals evolve slowly and regularly, reflecting random chance as well as changes in context and technology. From time to time, there are shocks to the system, and an entire ritual ecosystem is destroyed and must be repaired out of sticks and twigs.
Recall that in literal clearcutting, short-life-history plants flourish. They specialize in spreading quickly, with little regard for long-term survival and zero regard for participating in relationships within a permanent ecosystem. After a cultural clearcutting occurs, short-life-history rituals such as drug abuse flourish. To take a very extreme example, the Native American genocide destroyed many cultures at one blow. Many peoples who had safely used alcohol in ceremonial contexts for centuries experienced chronic alcohol abuse as their cultures were erased and they were massacred and forcibly moved across the country to the most marginal lands. There is some recent evidence of ritual repair, however; among many Native American groups, alcohol use is lower than among whites, and the ratio of Native American to white alcohol deaths has been decreasing for decades.
Crack cocaine did not spread among healthy, ritually intact communities. It spread among communities that had been “clearcut” by economic problems (including loss of manufacturing jobs), sadistic urban planning practices, and tragic social changes in family structure. Methamphetamine has followed similar patterns.
Alcohol prohibition in the United States constituted both a ritual destruction and a pesticide-style management policy. Relatively healthy ritual environments for alcohol consumption, resulting in substantial social capital, were destroyed, including fine restaurants. American cuisine was set back decades as the legitimate fine restaurants could not survive economically without selling a bottle of wine with dinner. In their place, short-life-history ritual environments, such as the speakeasy, sprung up; they contributed little to social capital, and had no ritual standards for decorum.
During (alcohol) Prohibition, when grain and fruit alcohol was not available, poisonous wood alcohols or other toxic alcohol substitutes were commonly consumed, often (but not always) unknowingly. (It’s surprising that there are drugs more toxic than alcohol, but there you go.) The consumption of poisoned (denatured) or wood alcohol may be the ultimate short-life-history ritual; it contributed nothing to social capital, provided but a brief experience of palliation, and often resulted in death or serious medical consequences. Morgues filled with bodies. The modern-day policy of poisoning prescription opiates with acetaminophen has the same effect as the Prohibition-era policy of “denaturing” alcohol: death and suffering to those in too much pain to pay attention to long-term incentives.
Early 20th century and modern prohibitions clearly don’t eradicate short-life-history drug rituals; rather, they concentrate them in their most harmful forms, and at the same time create a permanent economic niche for distributors. As the recently deceased economist Douglass North said in his Nobel lecture,
The organizations that come into existence will reflect the opportunities provided by the institutional matrix. That is, if the institutional framework rewards piracy then piratical organizations will come into existence; and if the institutional framework rewards productive activities then organizations – firms – will come into existence to engage in productive activities.
If the ritual ecology within a category of ritual provides attractive niches for short-life-history rituals, and the economic ecology provides niches for drug cartels, then these will come into existence and prosper; but if a ritual context is allowed to evolve to encapsulate mind-altering substances, as it has for most human societies in the history of the world, and to direct the use of these substances in specific times, manners, and places, then these longer-life-history rituals specialized for competition rather than short-term palliation will flourish. Prohibition is a pesticide with perverse effects; ritual reforestation is a long-term solution.
Some groups are able to negotiate voluntary prohibition at a smaller scale: Mormons, the Amish, Muslims, and adherents of Alcoholics Anonymous voluntarily abstain from intoxicating substances, but this abstention is replaced by intense participation in religious ritual. Even so, there is substantial attrition from these groups. Attrition may be a feature from the perspective of the group – only those most committed to the group’s policies and capable of abiding by them remain. But from the perspective of the larger society, especially those leaving these groups, the question arises of what to do when strict ancestral religious observance is inadequate to meet present needs. (Even devout Mormons complain of excessive boring meetings, instead of peaceful rest on the Sabbath and poignant or fun ritual participation.)
I focus on drugs because drugs are interesting, and they provide a tidy example of the processes in ritual ecology. But the same selective effects are present in many domains: music, drama, exercise, food, and the new ritual domain of the internet.
1. Do Nothing
In the important essay “In Praise of Passivity,” beloved by my occasional collaborator St. Rev, Michael Huemer suggests that the best course of action, politically, is usually to do nothing. “Even experts have little understanding of the working of society and little ability to predict future outcomes,” he says. “As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.”
An ecological model of culture underscores this advice: do nothing, because top-down interventions are generally harmful, and in their absence, attractive substitutes often evolve naturally. Almost the only rituals available to government bureaucracy are paperwork and sitting in offices (most of the criminal justice system is composed of these). In the absence of these weakly effective, often destructive, non-negotiable rituals, better rituals might evolve to solve various social problems. Doing nothing has never yet resulted in cane toads eating the entire world.
2. Ritual Reforestation
This is a lemma to Do Nothing. Rather than cracking down on ritual practices, allow them to continue; there is a good chance they will evolve into more useful, socially beneficial forms.
All rituals look to have been “clearcut” in the modern world, because few rituals are well-adapted to the new technological human reality. But this new reality may also be seen as an island: a pristine space, unoccupied by past rituals and very leisurely by historical standards, where sensory exploitation selection may flourish: rituals may serve the emotional and aesthetic needs of humans more than ever before, because they are under fewer constraints. Only a tiny percentage of the population is now needed for the production of food, fuel, and other necessities; selection for collective action in unpleasant areas has been dramatically relaxed. There is more room for arbitrary beauty.