The Culture of Law (7): Cultural Evolution: Sweating the Small Stuff

Our Future of Law series earlier this year looked at internal and external trends creating pressure for change in the legal profession. But really… the law has been around for millennia; changes move through it glacially. Can’t we just let things work themselves out in due time?

Sure, of course. Culture is formed in the brain; it evolves there as well. Cultural evolution brings change slowly, eventually, and inevitably. There’s just one problem:   evolution of any kind doesn’t work from a blueprint and doesn’t sweat the small stuff, so you never know where it’s going.

This is from The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, McGill University:

“The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems– it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that).  There is no overarching grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.”

As a result, Gary Hatfield, Dept of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, writing in the introduction to Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture, warns that cultural evolution’s adaptive walk might take us places contrary to our own best interests:

“Cultural evolution can yield significant change in behavior in the absence of biological evolution… Such changes need not be biologically adaptive; as a result, fads, fashions, or random variation, attitudes and behaviors may spread through a population that either have no effect on survival or that actually reduce the fitness of the members of a population.”

(Hmmm, did someone just say “billable hour”? Just couldn’t resist….)

If we’d prefer something other than an unpredictable evolutionary walk to potential self-destruction, we need to get proactive. Again from Dr. Levitin:

“A key to understanding the organized mind is to recognize that on its own, it doesn’t organize things the way you might want it to. It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility , it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different  kinds and different amounts of information that we have today.

“It’s helpful to understand that our modes of thinking and decision-making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization, but fortunately human knowledge has — we now better understand how to overcome evolutionary limitations.

“This is the story of how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society — from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals– have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life.”

Let’s see…

  • The most successful members of society,
  • [including] highly credentialed professionals [such as lawyers],
  • maximizing creativity and efficiency,
  • spending less time on the mundane,
  • and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life….

That’s the rationale for making the effort to overcome the limitations of evolutionary cultural change.

Anybody up for it?

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for over 30 years. Drawing on insights gathered from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, and psychology, and also from his personal experiences as a practicing lawyer and a “life athlete,” he’s on a mission to bring wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law.

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