The Predicament of Knowledge: A Challenge for Culture Design

Imagine if we collectively knew all that is needed to solve the hardest social problems in the world. Whether it’s political corruption or mass poverty, ecological devastation or terrorism, the refugee crisis or structural racism, the root causes for all of these issues are deeply and systemically cultural.

So what if we already knew how to design changes in culture and solve problems like these? Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile thing to do? Read on and I will try to convince you that this seemingly impossible feat is already within reach—all we have to do is put the right pieces together.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much truly excellent knowledge there is in the world. Just last week, I was deep in conversation with a woman I work with about the science of cognitive linguistics and how much is known about human thought and behavior after half a century of advances in the cognitive and behavioral sciences.

We delved into the foundational research on human categories from the late 1970’s;1 how metaphors arise from neural mapping of concrete body movements to the abstract domain of conceptual thought formalized in the early 80’s;2 and the exploration of social scripts as windows into the mental structuring of social experience during this same period of time.3 A quiet revolution was simmering in the social sciences that clearly explained how the human mind constructs and interprets reality in social settings. Yet to this day, much of it is overlooked or ignored.

Here’s the kicker… all of this knowledge is 30 to 40 years old!

phds-grantedWhy is it that people getting trained for media and communications today are not learning about frame semantics, conceptual metaphors, body-based reasoning, and all the other foundational insights from linguistics from a generation ago? A similar question could be asked about academics that rarely venture into other fields to learn what is happening in them—estimates are as high as 90% of all peer-reviewed work never gets cited.4 It’s partly to do with a special kind of blindness that dominates the world today — the over-emphasis of the new as somehow ‘better’ than what came before.

We have learned to treat scientific knowledge in the same throwaway manner that we do for older versions of laptops and smartphones. Mention a book from 15 years ago and watch as eyes glaze over. How could that possibly be relevant today? The amazing truth is that there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge accompanying the exponential explosion in human population (and all the emergent social complexities that came with it).

Here is a little known fact that should blow your mind: 90% of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today.5 That’s right! We create more knowledge in a year than was produced in the first 300 years after the scientific revolution. This expansion can be seen in the number of peer-review journal articles, millions of people graduating from college and advance studies (see Figure 1) every year and entering the workforce (if they are lucky enough to find increasingly rare employment opportunities), and the massive flood of findings across every field imaginable with new sources of data and tools for its study.

Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough knowledge; it’s that we have too much of it coming too fast for us to process and internalize. We are growing the pool of knowledge and insights at an exponential rate, yet failing to synthesize or apply it rapidly enough to tackle major social problems. Even worse, most of us are completely ignorant of what is known in other fields and no single person could possibly keep track of all of it.

Herein resides a secret source of hope for the future. Once we recognize that pretty much every problem anyone has in one place has been solved by another person (or group) somewhere else, we begin to see that a special kind of problem sits at the nexus of global threats and their prospective solutions.

That problem can be stated succinctly:

Humanity must figure out how to apply what it already knows to emerging challenges in a timely enough manner that we avoid systemic crises and collapse. This is a challenge of ‘social learning’ and the diffusion of innovations.

By this I mean that good ideas (capable of solving real-world problems) don’t spread well enough, aren’t learned deeply enough, and fail to be applied in a timely enough fashion. What we often see instead is a combination of piecemeal thinking that lacks sufficient integration, or worse, the successful spread of problematic ideas that can even make things worse when inappropriately applied.

There are decades of research on social learning in humans—like how children absorb culture from the adults around them when they are young or the manner in which adults adopt the practices of their peers in work settings—that can be applied to help with this problem.6 A foundational text in this area is Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation book that was published in 1962,i which has been highly influential for technology studies and can equally well be applied to tackling social problems.

Take the global ecological crisis as an example. It is now well documented that the convergent threats of climate change, top-soil losses, ocean acidification, deforestation, and ecosystem collapses are deeply intertwined with the cancerous logic of economic growth in our extractive capitalist system.8 There is no real separation between it and the massive poverty, extreme wealth inequality, political corruption, and all the human suffering caused by these things.

One case study that makes these connections clear is the collapse of the Sahel Monsoon in the 1960’s that led to a rapid decline in agricultural productivity across sub-Saharan Africa. This was quickly followed by political destabilization, genocide, and a hunger epidemic that continues to this day. Recent studies in climate science confirm that the monsoon pattern disappeared as a consequence of indirect feedbacks in regional atmospheric patterns due to a rise in sulfate aerosols from factories in western Europe.9 Delays between cause and effect—also known as ‘teleconnections’ because they can be spread far away in space and time—concealed this story for decades.

Social and environmental problems are deeply interconnected — but it is not easy to see these connections without having the appropriate narrative frames that focus attention on the coherent underlying logic of extractive, dominance-oriented, imperial systems of expansion and conquest. Thus, a great deal of knowledge remains partitioned away in categories for separate disciplines (economics, history, sociology, psychology, and more).

My colleagues at have been carefully analyzing the language used to talk about poverty and inequality to reveal systemic logics in global systems of politics and economics.10 We have been doing this by applying the research mentioned at the opening of this article — the cognitive and social sciences for meaning and communication — to help those engaged in frontline struggles to gradually reframe the debates about climate change, poverty, and inequality.

We have been a microcosm of what is needed now on a much grander scale. Humanity is in a kind of crucible. The best planetary science available tells us that we have already passed four of the nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that define a safe operating range for civilization.11 The choice before us now is one of regenerative healing or overshoot-and-collapse.

A growing number of people in the world — some estimates are as high as 300 million — have awakened to the values and worldview for planetary stewardship.12 These people (and the millions more who will inherit this cultural ethos in the decades to come) are going to need pathways of knowledge integration that combine key elements of what is known to resolve outstanding problems in their own communities.

I have given a name to this fledgling practice. I call it Culture Design and have written about it elsewhere.13 Its central tenet is that culture can be thought of as a complex adaptive system that flows and changes through the mechanisms of cultural evolution. Understand these fields of knowledge and it becomes possible to birth a science of intentional social change that gets applied to the hard problems of the world.

Let this idea sink in for a moment. What if it is really is possible to design changes in culture? The practice known as ‘design thinking’ has been criticized—and rightly so—for not being systemic enough to tackle hard problems like mass poverty.14 But when applied correctly, a design approach makes a great deal of sense. Analyze and understand the root causes of a problem. Bring the appropriate tools to address these root causes. Apply them with expert skill and the problem is addressed in a systemic manner.

This is what doctors do every day as they grapple with immensely complex biological systems in the human body. It is what policymakers and planners do to guide the evolution of urban areas informed by data analysis and projections for expected changes in the future. What I am suggesting is that cultural change can be guided with the same level of skill and mastery.

For example, the hard problem of terrorism has known causes. Public health researchers have long known that inequality leads to all manner of social ills. The book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett makes this abundantly clear.ii Similarly, cultural anthropologists like Scott Atran16 and Harvey Whitehouse17 have unpacked the mysteries of ritual taboo, feelings about violations of the sacred, and the mechanisms of ‘identity fusion’ that mold individuals into loyalty bonds with small groups they will then go on to fight and die for.

These things are well known — by the researchers themselves — but are not adequately curated, incorporated, and applied to the policies and practices that might bring terrorism to an end. Instead, what happens is status quo systems for exploitation and wealth extraction continue to be used to divide and conquer with predictable results. It is not that terrorism can’t be solved. It’s that the political systems that would do so have yet to be put in place.

Similar things can be said about the story of poverty creation and the historic origins of inequality. These things are well known by those who study them. Economic historians like Karl Polanyi have studied the privatization of Britain during the birth of capitalism—and its relationship to the first wave of mass poverty in a modern context.18 Cultural evolution researchers have gone back into antiquity to find the root causes of inequality in the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian city-states.19 Yet gaps remain between those who know these things and those who plot courses of action to deal with them.

Note how I am describing as problems what others have labeled ‘predicaments’ in the past. A predicament is a special category of challenge that has no solution because of its deeply entangled and multifaceted nature. What I am suggesting is that predicaments are merely problems that have yet to be adequately framed in a manner that makes their systemic nature clear. Once clarity is achieved at the root level, they become tractable via systemic interventions that supplant one complex system by another.

This is how scientific revolutions emerge — as documented by thinkers like Thomas Kuhn in their studies of ‘paradigm shifts’ in intellectual domains.20 It is also what happens when a disruptive model of social organization replaces one kind of economic system with another, as happened with the advent of the steam engine that gave rise to factory workers, or the digital revolution that is now replacing manual labor with the tireless efforts of highly efficient robots today.

What we are seeing is an unprecedented pace and scale of global change. Our failures to manage the threats arising with this change are deeply linked with failures in our political, economic, media, and educational systems for translating what is already known into viable practices for managing emergent complexity.

Another concrete example may be helpful. When I was in college, I trained in the theater practices of improv acting. What I learned was how to empathize with other people and build on suggestions they make in the moment. They practice doing the same and together an unscripted scene emerges through the evolutionary process of creative exchange that flows when both actors are poised to be responsive to each other. Neither of us knows what will happen next, yet both are ready to co-create with whatever comes into the scene.

Imagine if practices like these were applied to public policy (or education itself). How might we learn differently? What might become possible for entire communities to create together? In the lingo of design thinking, this kind of approach is called rapid prototyping—quickly creating prototypes, testing them to see if they work, and iterating to improve them. This kind of experimental approach to problem solving is widely used in technical industries and can also be applied here.

All evidence points toward a convergence of systemic threats in the next few decades. Most people alive today (and all soon to be born) will have to navigate one crisis after another with all the grace and wisdom that can be mustered. Thankfully, we have a veritable sea of knowledge to work with that will help us do this to the best of our abilities.

Birthing the Field of Cultural Evolution

I will close with an inspiring project I am deeply honored to be part of. A group of biologists, complexity scientists, and social researchers came together last year to form the Cultural Evolution Society. We promptly queried our fledgling membership (which has now grown to more than 1500 researchers at more than 400 universities around the world) about the ‘grand challenges’ for the field of cultural evolution.21

The single most prominent response was the need for knowledge synthesis across biology, the social sciences, and humanities. So this synthesis is now the guiding mission for the membership to pursue together. We are outlining plans for conferences and workshops, research agendas, and education initiatives that map this expansive landscape comprising hundreds of academic disciplines to tackle real-world challenges like those mentioned above.

Among the ideas organizing our efforts is the notion of treating every place where practitioners are working on social change as a ‘field site’ for cultural evolution research. These field sites are analogous to biologists who must go into the field to study plants and animals in the wild or archeologists who set up digs at sites where ancient ruins are buried. Imagine if community members working to reduce crime, build affordable housing, improve public health, and educate our children were to have a global network of researchers available to support and guide their efforts. This is becoming possible as one prong of strategy among the membership of this society.

Now expand your thinking beyond the science of social change and think about all that is becoming known in medicine, technology, the study of human origins, animal behavior, and more. We collectively know a LOT and had better figure out how to reorganize and deploy it for the troubled times we are in as a species.

There are plenty of reasons why our knowledge has historically been separated into silos—in the early days it was necessary to carve the world into manageable chunks to study and make sense of them. And quite a few obstacles remain firmly in place, as anyone who seeks funding for interdisciplinary research knows all too well. It will require a great deal of ingenuity and effort (and no small amount of cooperation) to move beyond the incentive structures for career advancement and funding that get in the way today.

But unlocking these silos will be essential work for a great number of us working to weave knowledge and manifest holistic solutions to the problems that threaten the viability of our civilization in the early 21st century. Not only must we do it, but as I hope I have conveyed in this essay, it is now within reach if only we can muster the courage to believe in the seemingly impossible: that all our problems already have solutions. They just need to be brought together in the right combinations and applied with insight and care.

Onward, fellow humans.


[expand title=”Show Endnotes” swaptitle=”Close Endnotes”]

1 Rosch, E., Mervis, C.B., Gray, W.D., Johnson, D.M., & Boyes-Braem, P. (1976). Basic objects in natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 8, 382–439.

2 Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

3 Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

4 Meho, L. (2007). The rise and rise of citation analysis. Physics World. Available at

5 Gastfriend, E. (2015). 90% of all scientists that ever lives are alive today. Available at

6 Henrich, J. (2015). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

7 Rogers, E. (1962). Diffusion of innovation. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

8 Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

9 Booth, B.B.B., Dunstone, N.J., Halloran, P.R., Andrews, T., & Bellouin, N. (2012). Aerosols implicated as a prime driver of twentieth-century North Atlantic climate variability. Nature, 484, 228–232.

10 http:///

11 Monroe, R. (2015). Earth has crossed several ‘planetary boundaries,’ thresholds of human-induced environmental changes. Available at

12 Cultural Creatives 1.0: The (R)evolution. Available at

13 Brewer, J. (2015). Tools for culture design: Toward a science of social change? Spanda Journal, 1. Available at

14 Kirk, M., Hickel, J., & Brewer, J. (2015). Using design thinking to eradicate poverty creation. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Available online at

15 Pickett, K., & Wilkinson, R. (2009). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes society stronger. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

16 Atran, S. (2010). Talking with the enemy: Faith, brotherhood, and the (un)making of terrorists. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

17 Whitehouse, H., & Lanman, J. (2014). The ties that bind us. Current Anthropology, 55(6), 674–695.

18 Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston, MA: Farrar & Rinehart.

19 Mattison, S., Smith, E.A., Shenk, M.K., & Cochrane, E.E. (2016). The evolution of inequality. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 25(4), 184–199.

20 Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

21 Brewer, J. (2015). What are the grand challenges for cultural evolution? Available online at



[expand title=”Show References” swaptitle=”Hide References”]

i Rogers, E. (1962). Diffusion of innovation. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

ii Pickett, K., & Wilkinson, R. (2009). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes society stronger. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.