As I wrote in a previous blog (Inheritance, how we are carriers for our genes as well as our culture,  2nd January 2009) , human culture evolves by different mechanisms compared with biological evolution.  Cultural evolution conforms to the principles of development by use and disuse, laid down by the French soldier and biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was commissioned  for valour on the battlefield when just 17 years of age.  So promotion ensured his own personal development in much the same way as, according to Lamarckism, the giraffes neck would grow longer to reach the leaves it feeds on.  And once a certain characteristic is established as useful within the culture, it tends to stay until modified or replaced or until a change in fashion or technology creates a new way of looking at things. 


The rate at which cultural evolution occurs differs according to the topic or aspect. In science, there are long periods of stability where nothing much changes. Most scientists like to study what is in fashion; what other scientists are doing.  They compete with each other top add a small brick to the edifice.  And when they can think of nothing else to do, they test what is already known by ever more rigorous means.  Then suddenly an Albert Einstein comes along or an Alexander Fleming makes a breakthrough that opens up a new channel of enquiry, a rich vein that may lead to a whole new way of seeing things.      


Science favours the prepared mind.  Something usually occurs to anticipate discovery; a serendipitous observation, a discovery in another field, a new way of thinking or an advance in technology, such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Then, rather like the change in climate that propelled tool-using  humanoid bipeds out of the forest onto the savannah, the scene is set for rapid evolution of ideas.   


Art is more idiosyncratic. Artists are influenced by each other but most try not to copy each other.  They are fiercely individual and are constantly looking for original ways of seeing and expressing things.  It’s probably no coincidence that political radicals of the nineteen seventies and eighties had often been to art colleges.  An advance in technology, a new medium, may provoke a flurry of invention as each artist uses it to develop their own creative opportunities, but as soon as they are successful, an artist’s style tends to become fixed to fit with cultural expectations they have created.  They become trapped by the success of their retrospectives.     


Literature changes more slowly, less radically.  For many years, good prose and poetry had to conform to rules of syntax and grammar as well as a certain accepted rhythm and music. Change could only take place within that container. Now, with the advent of electronic communication, the medium is changing.   New forms are being introduced with bewildering frequency and with these, new opportunities of expression.        


Music and the theatre, the performing arts, are also somewhat split.  There is an increasing amount of experimental, avant garde theatre, some radical new styles of composition, innovations in dance. But most theatre and music performance is traditional, a re-working of the classics. The content is fixed. All that can change is the style and interpretation.  That depends on the director, the actors and the musicians.     


Musical performance affects the way the sounds are expressed, the emphasis, amplitude, rate, timbre and tone.  Performers can take a certain amount of liberty with the composition; a different combination of instruments can be used for example, whole sections may be omitted. But performance is more than innovation and artistry. It is competitive in a similar manner as ice dancing, synchronised swimming or gymnastics. The bar gets raised all the time, sounds get crisper and clearer, the fingering more complex and technology creates new opportunities.  The performance has to keep pace with and in most cases exceed the demands of increasingly discerning and critical audiences.  Musicians often regard the concert as blood sport. The audience is looking for mistakes and the penalty for failure is death.


Nevertheless, performance style can only change within the limits of what is acceptable.  Evolution in this context occurs by listening to others, adopting certain nuances, rejecting others, practicing, performing, obtaining feedback and readjustment, a gradual remodelling that accommodates current cultural demands. For example, high fidelity recordings have created a desire for crisp, clean sounds that can be amplified and adjusted, whereas in the past a soloist or singer would need to hold their own against the orchestra with prodigious amplitude and the elaborate use of vibrato and arpeggio.  Musicians adopt what musicologist, Daniel Leech-Wilson called ‘optimal foraging principles’, which explains, he asserted, why prima donnas have declined in favour of opera singers who can work well with others in a team.  Nevertheless, musicians, like artists, have to develop their own style as they learn, change and make it their own.  In that respect, performance is rather like practicing psychotherapy or what used to be called ‘the art of medicine’.  Any innovation of the culture of performance has to fit current norms but add something fresh, like Catrin Finch’s recent rearrangement of The Goldberg Variations for the harp (see my recent blog, entitled, ‘What is Music For?’ 26th February, 2009). .


Cultural evolution has parallels in biological evolution. In stable, traditional societies, biological as well as cultural evolution occurs very slowly, if at all, by small adaptations.  Genes that favour overconsumption may well be weeded out, but other ‘genetic’ diseases may increase with effective treatment.  As societies become more cosmopolitan, the blending of racial characteristic creates more adaptability to change, both in a biological and cultural sense.  


It is only when humanity is decimated by a change in the environment, a deterioration in the climate so catastrophic, an infection so devastating, that survivors will create a new race with particular characteristics of resistance. This might be compared with exposure of populations to a completely new way of perceiving the world, a cultural revolution.  Only those, who are able to adapt their thinking and behaviour, will be able to keep up.   So as the current financial crisis continues to bite, only those who have a clear understanding of what is happening, will be able to use it to their advantage.    


And not all biological evolution is Darwinian.  A new symbiotic relationship that confers a distinct advantage on both species; a beneficial bacterium in the human colon, the association of soil fungi with tree roots, a virus that gets incorporated into the human genetic apparatus; these all behave in a Lamarkian manner and are taken up at the rate of cultural evolution.  Nothing is absolute. This begs the question, ‘for cultural change to survive from generation to generation, how much of it is transmitted according to natural selection.’  At one time in our history, a gene encoding for musicality or a surrogate for it, might have conferred a selective advantage in terms of promoting societies.  But that’s for another day.