How the Internet Subverts Cultural Transmission

Our genus, Homo, has only a single species, sapiens, something extremely odd given that we have occupied virtually the entire globe, even putting vessels all over and under the sea. Other genera speciate as they spread. For example, the genus of the big cats is Panthera, and it includes the species lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, and snow leopard. When Darwin’s finches colonized the Galapagos Islands they evolved into at least a dozen new species (Darwin 1839). In contrast, humans have colonized islands and archipelagoes all over the world, but we are still only a single species, H. sapiens. Why is Homo a singleton?

We are alone because instead of evolving different species to adapt to different geographies and climates, we adapt through culture. Our species is often described as a generalist, but in fact we are not, we are extremely specialized: everywhere, we are utterly dependent on vast bodies of stored, transmitted, and constantly edited and updated information, that is, on culture (Barkow 1989). A culture is a massive compendium of knowledge – it includes subsistence skills, forms of social organization that are reasonably compatible with our current environment and level of technology, all details of that technology, effective ways to procure food and other essentials, the belief systems that more-or-less support the way we are socially organized, how we communicate from spoken language to gestures to posture and facial expressions, how to and when to clean and to clothe ourselves, how to court and how to compete, how to make art and evaluate the art of others, how to rest and how to sleep, how to have sex and how to rear children, and so on. Properly done, an old-fashioned ethnography – a description of the way of life of a people – was an encyclopedia, though always an incomplete one. Moreover, it was out-of-date the instant it was completed because cultures are always changing, that is, all groups have an ongoing history. Youth is a busy, busy time for members of Homo sapiens because every individual must strive to engulf many doctorates’ worth of knowledge: we must acquire and adapt enough of our local information ocean to permit us to find our place in our home society.

Though at times some psychological anthropologists have focused on aspects of cultural acquisition, the fields of cognitive and developmental psychology do and do not study culture. They do, because they focus on learning and the individual child, and they do not, because they tend to ignore the higher level of organization at which we can talk about cultural acquisition and editing. In recent years, some evolutionists have begun to think of culture as an adaptive, evolving system and the participants of a culture not as blind copying machines but as editors and inventers of the knowledge of which a culture consists (e.g., Barkow 1989; Barkow, O’Gorman and Rendell 2012, 2013; Fessler 2007; Mesoudi 2016; Mesoudi et al 2016).

Culture as an adaptive mechanism would be a dead-end if human psychology were no more than a copying machine that simply replicated knowledge with high fidelity. Environments change – fisheries get depleted, rivers run dry, enemies arrive, crops contract diseases, climates change. New opportunities also arise – perhaps the enemies bring new technologies, or new cultivars become possible, or population growth leads to colonizing new and different territories. Cultural information needs not just to be replicated but, with each generation, tested and challenged with some bits discarded and new ones added. Occasionally, only revolutionary change will do.

You and I are the children of the successful. Our ancestors succeeded in assimilating and adapting and inventing cultural information so as to permit them to survive and reproduce – actually, to out-survive and out-reproduce the competition, thereby increasing the proportion of their own genetic representation in the local gene pool. Offspring resemble their parents, as Darwin taught, so presumably most of us have at least some of the culture-editing mechanisms that enabled our ancestors to become our ancestors. No doubt future researchers will produce massive tomes delineating these mechanisms and how they orchestrate the processes that turn a child into an adult member of his or her culture and society.

This essay focuses on only one of our culture-editing mechanisms, the tendency to pay preferential attention to, and learn preferentially from, the high in status, an idea originally suggested by the ethologist Michael R. A. Chance (1967; Chance and Larsen 1976; Barkow 1976). As young people, we seek as respected and prestigious a position in our local society as we can, and in doing so we in effect edit our culture. In adolescence we tend to become preoccupied by our own relative standing and that of the people and groups around us. This status consciousness may be considered reprehensible among some culturally egalitarian groups today, but how can we pay preferential attention to the high in status without status consciousness?

When we pay attention to someone whom we respect and admire or simply fear, a frequently one-way communication channel opens, and learning is enabled. In doing so, two processes begin: First, we are editing our cultures – we are editing out the behavior and knowledge of the low-in-status, the “losers,” the ignored, from the culture’s information pool. In their place we are replicating versions of the information associated with the high-in-status, the prestigious, the winners. Second, we are positioning ourselves to acquire prestige because those who are already respected must be doing something right! Of course, this is obviously an imperfect mechanism – our judgment of who is higher and who is lower may change, the knowledge we delete or insert may be irrelevant to the actual social standing of the individuals involved (let’s wear our hats the way the wealthy do, let’s not eat the traditional food of the poor, regardless of its nutritional characteristics): but during our long evolution this mechanism was probably reasonably effective. Learning our hunting and gathering skills from the people who were respected because they brought food back to the band, rather than learning the techniques of those of low status because they usually returned empty-handed, would have represented highly adaptive cultural editing. Learning our parenting skills from the woman respected because of her many healthy children would have been similarly adaptive. The techniques of the farmer who had higher yields than others, or the skills of the healer whose patients survived, could bring prestige to those who learned them. As we attended to the prestigious we increased our own chances for gaining the respect of those around us while editing our culture in effective ways.[i]

Cultural editing is not necessarily smooth. Even before the age of the Internet, preferential attention to the high in status could have unpredictable results. In my own work, during the 1970s, I lived among a people in Nigeria’s Middle Belt who called themselves the Migili (and whom the literature refers to as the “Koro”). Shortly before my arrival, a group of young Migili men had served in the Nigerian army. They had been astounded to learn that their revered elders were held in contempt by the surrounding Muslim, Hausa-speaking peoples, who thought of Migili as ignorant and dirty. The young men lost all respect for their elders and did the unthinkable: upon returning home they physically attacked some of the male elders, cutting off their hair because they had learned that outside the group, the elders’ hairstyle was considered laughably feminine. The organization of Migili society had been based on promotion of individuals through a series of ranks or age-grades, and the elders now refused to promote young men. Local social organization, in which the age-grades had defined roles, collapsed when the age grade of young males responded to the ending of promotion by refusing to carry out their essential responsibilities. The economic system, in which this age-grade did most of the heaviest labor communally, planting and harvesting the staple crop, yams, was transformed overnight, as was the religious system. Farming aid was now given only to one’s close relatives or to those who would fully reciprocate that aid. Most people converted either to Evangelical Christianity or Catholicism, though some embraced Islam. The society changed thoroughly and irrevocably. The organization of a society is of course part of its culture, and for a culture to be perpetuated, the young must respect their elders: at least in some crucial ways, they must want to be like them and therefore to attend to them and learn preferentially from them. To take the prestige away from the older people is to throw a monkey wrench into the system of cultural transmission (Barkow 1982).

The Migili case gives us some insight into the impact of social media today. In part, the Migili social collapse resulted from a change in scale – from living in their own homogeneous town and having contact with outsiders only when visiting markets, the young men were exposed to the multi-ethnic Nigerian army, and their evaluation criteria for assessing relative standing changed sharply. Modern social media represent a change in scale orders of magnitude greater, and while its effects are slower than the Migili case, over the long run they may be equally dramatic.

Movies, sports events, and the Internet are nearly global in scale. Entertainers and athletes seem to be presented as being near the top of the status hierarchy. People who get attention – who get more “hits,” more followers than others, more fans – are perceived as of high status and worthy of even more attention. Our brains evolved in small-scale societies and react to these strangers as if they were powerful and important members of our own geographic community. We often grow up wanting to be like them, and even when we consciously reject them, they influence us. Parents everywhere seem to have children who want to be film actors, or hip-hop artists, or Olympic gold medal winners.

Moving from the worlds of books and movies to the Internet has enormously increased such distributed communities while encouraging frequent and rapid electronic interaction among their residents. Sometimes large portions of a population share a media interest, as with athletics, but at other times we may dwell in and interact with an online community devoted to a single interest, say, growing garlic or agitating for better mental health services. Each online community develops its own prestige criteria and its own heroes, thereby facilitating the acquisition and editing of its own information pool.

Whether we are talking of books, films, television, or the Internet, modern mass media devalue the coin of local prestige. This devaluation results in what economists might term “opportunity cost.” Rather than wanting to be like one’s own parents, or like the successful baker down the block, or even the respected political leader, young people may want to be football heroes, or to produce videos for Youtube. They withdraw their attention from exemplars of their own local culture and may fail to acquire some of the skills and attitudes that made for success for previous generations and may be important in adapting to local environment. Everywhere, it seems, parents find themselves in the position of first generation immigrants whose children participate in a new and unfamiliar culture.

What exactly all this will mean for the future remains uncertain because we simply do not know enough about the mechanisms of cultural acquisition and editing. Are there processes that may make up at least in part for the malfunctioning of the learn-from-the-high-in-status bias? Certainly, much cultural information is transmitted very early in life, and young children usually perceive their parents as being high in the social hierarchy.

Media challenges to cultural transmission do not exist in a vacuum, either. For example, we now live more in industrial societies than in rural, agricultural communities. Almost everywhere, we are clumping together in large urban centers. This means that much of the knowledge and skills of our local prestigious figures – including our parents - may appear to be much less relevant to our lives; the prestige of these figures may have already diminished because cultural information that led to success in a rural setting may be useless in an urban context.

There are other obvious sources of social change that may put a premium on the creation of knowledge rather than its transmission from elders. For example, we may live in a period of changing economic conditions, of warfare and religious conflict, of technological developments, and of demographic change. Research on who and what young people are attending to and what they respect and what they are learning, and how these differ from what was learned and respected by earlier generations, is always needed. Sorting out changes in mass media-related prestige-biased cultural transmission from these other sources of social change will challenge researchers. Except in one case.

What happens when extreme groups use the Internet to proselytize, perhaps targeting individuals who, for whatever reason, do not see themselves as succeeding in finding a respected place within their own society, or who fail to see that society as itself prestigious? What happens when the extreme group can convince their targets that they represent the most prestigious and powerful individual in the universe, the monotheistic god? Such extremists can become powerful and prestigious attention attractors. One convert may share the newly acquired worldview and values with age-mates, resulting in a cluster of recruits. Just as the Migili young men could attack the elders they had been raised to revere, so can the targets of Internet extreme groups turn violently against the people around them, or simply give their lives over to strangers with their own ends. The result is not merely cultural editing, here, or even social-cultural collapse: the result can be extreme violence.[ii]

I never tire of writing that “biology is destiny only if we ignore it” (Barkow 2003). Adolescent status consciousness is a product of evolution, adaptive because it led individuals to learn preferentially from those more rather than less likely to have useful knowledge to impart, with the added benefit of helping to edit the larger culture in adaptive ways. Today, this evolved trait is having the unforeseen result of turning young people all over the world into pop stars and athletes rather than their striving to become like local successes; it is also being deliberately exploited by extreme groups to create terrorists. With the risk of offending those involved with the fast and factory food industries, let me conclude by drawing a parallel. We evolved to seek the tastes of salt, fat, and sweetness because, in earlier environments, these were reliable guides to scarce and valuable nutrients – they were indicators of nutrition. Today, these evolved preferences are exploited by industry to produce profitable but often dangerously unhealthy products. As with preferential attention to the high in status, our own evolved psychology is being turned against us. In both cases, our immediate reaction is to use cultural, religious, and moral systems against those responsible, trying to use shame and the label of “evil” to in effect lower the relative standing of those exploiting our evolved psychology for their own ends. I think our immediate reaction is right.

If we can lower the perceived relative standing of those who either deliberately or inadvertently are causing the editing of our cultures in unhealthy ways, they will no longer be automatic attractors of attention. Rather than the susceptible learning preferentially from them, their messages will be ignored and deleted. If we can raise the perceived status of local people capable of providing locally relevant, useful information, these individuals will not need to ask for the attention of the young, they will already have it.

Strategies require tactics, however, and a strategy of seeking to control the apparent relative standing of potential attractors of attention will require an array of tactics adapted to local situations, ideally with researchers devising means of measuring their effectiveness. Such an effort would raise not only the “how” question but the “whom” question: whom do we trust to manipulate the future of the cultures in which we participate? Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, this brief essay has raised far more questions than it has answered.



[i] Chance makes a distinction between attention based on fear and hedonic attention based on respect. Barkow, O’Gorman, and Rendell (2013) and Barkow (2014) argue that in real-life relationships fear and respect are often intermingled, though one or the other may be dominant. Where fear attention predominates, learning tends to be limited to avoiding the threat represented by the other. Hedonic attention, however, enables a broad range of learning from its object.

[ii] This account necessarily oversimplifies the appeal of groups such as ISIS because the intent here is to focus on a single evolved mechanism, preferential attention to the high in status. For a broad and insightful discussion of the appeal of ISIS in particular, see Atran (2015).




Atran, Scott. (2015). ISIS is a Revolution. AEON, Dec. 15.

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Barkow, Jerome H. (1989). Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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Barkow, Jerome H. (2014). Prestige and the ongoing process of culture revision. The Psychology of Social Status (pp. 29-46). New York: Springer Science+Business Media

Barkow, Jerome H., O’Gorman, Rick, & Rendell, Luke. (2012). Are the new mass media subverting cultural transmission? Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 121-133. doi: 10.1037/a0027907

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Mesoudi, Alex. (2016). Cultural evolution: integrating psychology, evolution and culture. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 17-22. doi:

Mesoudi, A., Chang, L., Dall, S.X., & Thornton, A. (in press Jan  2016). The evolution of individual and cultural variation in social learning. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.12.012

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Like Matt Ridley, I Remain Rationally Optimistic by Donald J. Boudreaux

    Donald J. Boudreaux accepts that social media have been transformative, but he doubts that “unsavory cultural consequences” are on the way. Living standards are the highest they have ever been, and they continue to rise. Material wealth has risen, he thinks, particularly because of rising knowledge - knowledge about the demand for certain products, knowledge about how the physical world works, knowledge about production and distribution techniques, and knowledge about local opportunities. Like other forms of media that have gone before them, social media have allowed us to trade and combine good ideas and bits of useful local knowledge that otherwise might never have been put to use. So while we can’t say for certain that we aren’t undermining the channels of cultural transmission, the future still looks brighter than ever, and fast, cheap communication itself is a big part of why it does.

  • Kanye West, the Internet, and Cultural Evolution by Zeynep Tufekci

    Zeynep Tufekci argues that the Internet is replacing former modes of cultural transmission. But for many of us, it’s not replacing traditional local elders - it’s replacing the homogeneous, carefully produced mass media of the twentieth century. Now, rather than seeing only what the media industry wants us to see, we interact with celebrities in a much more personal, unmediated way. We also have many more of them - not just athletes, actors, and pop stars, but astrophysicists, philosophers, and the creators of YouTube videos can all serve as “celebrities” with fans of their own. On the personal level, although we now migrate more than ever, the Internet allows us to keep in touch with the cultures where we grew up. Social media’s role in cultural transmission is thus exceptionally complex, and it is not simply a matter of replacing static and traditional modes of cultural transmission with new and disruptive ones.

  • In Today’s World, Cultural Stasis Isn’t an Option by Julian Sanchez

    Julian Sanchez argues that the Internet has indeed wrought significant cultural change. But fears of online jihadism have been exaggerated; face-to-face recruitment remains a more potent method, it would appear, than Twitter. Apart from that, American teens nowadays seem remarkably well-behaved, and their online social activities mostly mirror their offline ones. And while some cultural knowledge has been lost, that in part has been the result of technological change rendering some careers obsolete while creating some new ones. It is ultimately unclear why we should be afraid of these new forms of cultural transmission, or the content that they convey.

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