h. National Cultural Evolution

National Cultural Evolution


Culture comprises: values or those things that we hold good; norms or acceptable forms of behaviour; knowledge or beliefs; and symbols or things that identify us as belonging to a cultural group, such as ceremonies, forms of dress, and so on. Every organisation, no matter what its type, has a culture.

Culture evolves through a process of mutation and natural selection. The inception of a culture is largely based on geographical factors, such as climate, topography, and available resources. However, as a culture matures, social circumstances, particularly sub-cultures, begin to play a significant part. Cultural evolution is like biological evolution, but with two main differences. Firstly, cultural mutations are not necessarily random, but more commonly a consequence of prevailing circumstances. Secondly, because culture is learnt, it can change far more rapidly. Indeed, cultural evolution in humanity is thought to precede biological evolution, providing that the relevant aspects of the culture endure for enough time.

Ronald Inglehart and The World Values Survey

The World Values Survey (WVS) was begun in 1981 by its founder and first president, the American political scientist, Ronald Inglehart. The project measures the values, norms, and beliefs of the populations of 120 countries, and any changes, by carrying out extensive surveys every 5 years. The results are open access, used extensively by social and political scientists, and can be found at . Inglehart has also written an interpretation of the data in his 2018 book “Cultural Evolution”.

Nations can contain sub-cultures or counter-cultures. The values measured are, therefore, national averages and not those held by every individual or organisation. Nevertheless, these averages show very distinctive trends.

Cultural Dimensions

Inglehart and the WVS identified two independent dimensions to the values held by a culture. They are Traditional verses Secular-rational Values and Survival verses Self-expression Values. A change on one of these dimensions does not cause a change on the other, and they have different causes, therefore.

These values are explained below using quotes from Inglehart and the World Values Survey.

Traditional Values

  • Traditional values base morality on purported supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics). (Inglehart)
  • “Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.” (WVS)

Secular-rational Values

  • Secular values base morality on human faculties such as logic, reason, or moral intuition. (Inglehart)
  • “Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)” (WVS)

Survival Values

  • Top priority is given to economic and physical safety. Inglehart calls this “the Authoritarian Reflex” and describes it as a deep-rooted human reaction to insecurity. Norms are linked with survival of the species or at least the in-group.
  • “Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.” (WVS)

Examples include:

  • A tendency to seek strong authoritarian leadership to bind the community together into its survival endeavour.
  • A tendency towards obedience of leaders.
  • A tendency towards strong in-group solidarity.
  • A tendency towards conformity to group norms.
  • A tendency towards rigid adherence to traditional cultural norms.
  • Intolerance of difference.
  • Xenophobia.
  • An emphasis in child upbringing on hard work.

Self-expression Values

  • These values are linked with the pursuit of individual wellbeing and tend to be democratic, secular and ones of tolerance for differences.
  • “Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.” (WVS)

Examples include:

  • An emphasis on gender equality.
  • Tolerance of LGBT people.
  • Tolerance of foreigners.
  • Tolerance of other outgroups.
  • Freedom of expression, e.g., speech.
  • Freedom of self-expression.
  • Freedom of choice on how to live one’s life.
  • Autonomy.
  • Creativity.
  • Participation in political and economic decision making.
  • Political activism.
  • The voice of the people.
  • Greater egalitarianism.
  • Equality of opportunity.
  • Openness to new ideas.
  • Openness to change.
  • Greater emphasis on environmental protection.
  • More tolerant of extramarital affairs.
  • More tolerant of suicide and euthanasia.
  • A rejection of hierarchical institutions.
  • Lack of deference to external authority.
  • Greater emphasis on the need for esteem.
  • Greater emphasis on aesthetic satisfaction.
  • An emphasis in child upbringing on imagination and tolerance.

Culture Mapping

Because the survival/self-expression and traditional/secular rational dimensions are almost entirely independent, Inglehart and the World Values Survey have been able to plot cultures as points on a graph. The most recent survey results are shown in the diagram below. Cultures with traditional and survival values are plotted in the bottom left and ones with secular-rational and self-expression values in the top right. This shows that countries cluster together to form cultural groups.

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map – World Values Survey 7 (2022). Source:

As one moves in a direction from bottom left to top right, one moves from economically poorer to richer countries. A country’s position in the graph reflects both its economic and its socio-cultural history. Values vary from individual to individual within those countries, of course. These variations are according to gender, generation, ethnicity, religious denomination, education, income and so forth. However, the standard deviation for an individual country is much smaller than the differences in position between rich and poor countries, and, in many cases, than between adjacent countries. Thus, the likelihood of a person in Sweden or the USA having the same values as a person in Nigeria or Jordan is very small. The predictive power of nationality is much stronger than that of income, education, region within the country, or gender.

If countries are mapped on this graph at different times, they show a distinct trajectory of cultural change. An animated graph can be found at

An Interpretation of the WVS’s Findings

Cultural evolution is a relatively new concept and, whilst there is extensive data from recent years, its interpretation should be treated with caution. For example, is the shift in the West from a change in values on the Traditional/Secular dimension to a change in values on the Survival/Self-expression dimension a consequence of post-industrialism or a consequence of consumerism and advertising?

The German Political Scientist, Christian Welzel, provides one interpretation in his book “Freedom Rising”. His main points can be found at They include:

  1. “Since 1981, economic development, democratization, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice, which in turn has led to higher levels of happiness around the world.”
  2. “People’s priorities shift from traditional to secular-rational values as their sense of existential security increases…” and “The largest increase in existential security occurs with the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Consequently, the largest shift from traditional towards secular-rational values happens in this phase.”
  3. “People’s priorities shift from survival to self-expression values as their sense of individual agency increases…” and “The largest increase in individual agency occurs with the transition from industrial to knowledge societies. Consequently, the largest shift from survival to self-expression values happens in this phase.”