Psychogenes & Cultural Evolution (Joseph Giovannoli, 2000)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions, pp. 181-205

Biology of belief

Cultures do not spontaneously self-assemble. They evolve through the efforts of generations to create the complex of coherent commerce, communications, and institutions for which each society is known. Each new generation must be educated to receive the culture and to pass it on. It can be lost if just one generation fails to sustain it. So too, reversals of fortune may damage or destroy it. The sustaining bounty of Nature can change with weather or with a more abrupt natural disaster. Harbors can choke with silt. Natural resources can be depleted or squandered. Trade routes can change, leaving prosperous civilizations to wither. New technology in the hands of competitors can lead to economic or military ruin. Institutions essential to social organization may evolve to serve themselves instead of society. The failure or corruption of religious, social, political, or economic leadership can lead to social decay, class conflict, disunity, or destructive wars. Whether written or oral, symbolic or explicit, the essence of any society can be found in its psychogenes. Japanese psychologist Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto observed that “[L]argely unspoken, collective assumptions about appropriate social behavior vary greatly from one country or geographic to another…”1 While Westerners value personal independence, Easterners value social interdependence. A few relevant Western psychogenes emphasize individuality, independence, and personal achievement. Counterpart Japanese psychogenes subordinate individuality to an interconnected social web and stress sensitivity to the expectations of others concerning right and wrong behavior. Shinobu Kitayama thinks that

This cultural perspective appears in various forms throughout East Asia. Its adherents tend to write off the European-American pursuit of self-esteem as an immature disregard for the relationships that nurture self-identify…2

Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto
Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto

Although psychogenetic evolution is faster than biological evolution, it often takes a number of generations to observe fundamental psychogenetic change. From about 750 BCE to 1600 CE, Italian beliefs experienced many fundamental changes as Italy evolved from a republic phase to an empire phase starting with Julius Caesar, then through decline to Christian domination in the Dark and Middle ages, and then to the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern philosophy and science. We will consider the psychogenetic influences that gave rise to the Roman state, the consequences of conquering Greece and assimilating its culture, the psychogenetic influence of the rise of Christianity, and the influence of Greco-Roman beliefs on Italian psychogenes during the Renaissance.

roman virtues

Early Roman Psychogenes

In about 753 BCE, Rome began as a small town in central Italy about 20 miles from the sea. Although it may have begun as an Etruscan town, it is said that Latins used it as a defense against Etruscan expansion. Its origins are not clear. Eugene Weber of the University of California at Berkeley described early Roman core beliefs as follows:

The virtues the Romans admired were all related to discipline and self-discipline. They believed in “Pietas”—respect for established authority and tradition. They believed in “Fides”—being true to your responsibilities; in “Religio”—the common belief[s] that bind men together; and above all in “Gravitas”—the sober seriousness that marks a real man. Even the word “Virtus” means manliness…True virtue subordinates the person to the city, the individual to the state…The Romans were a conservative people and so they wanted strong leaders, but not too strong.3

Armed with Pietas, Fides, Religio, and Gravitas they encountered the world, and more by evolution than design, they conquered it. In the process, Roman practices changed the agriculture, settlement patterns, and interregional economics of conquered lands. Formerly independent regions conformed to the Roman model. Large farming estates replaced smaller farmsteads. Roman economic and military considerations dislocated populations and altered traditions, as selected cities became bureaucratic and commercial centers. As new administrative centers and trade routes brought some old cities into the republic, other cities withered. Change created wealth for some and new tax burdens for others. As with assimilation at other times in human history, old boundaries, beliefs, traditions, and cultural identities were transformed.4

The full article can be read here: