Evolutionary clusters = small groups

Pointer from: Mary Catherine Bateson on On Being, about her mother
Place digested: Same favorite spot at the dining table, burning a hole in the seat
Time digested: Oct 7, 2018

On "evolutionary clusters," by Margaret Mead

"Among the conditions which make it possible for a (hu)man of exceptional ability to make a contribution of cultural change is the special composition of the cluster of individuals WITH whom (s)he interacts and THROUGH whom (s)he interacts also with others.

The importance of the small group of identified individuals who surround the leader or innovator has not been so fully explored.


Glancing through Mead’s 1964 Continuities in Cultural Evolution, the primary theme is indeed the significance of the "small group" in the processes of cultural change. To get a sense of what the book is about, I’ll suggest a comparison. Think of it as a 60s version of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Like Johnson, Mead’s sensibility is evolutionary. She’s writing about how cultures evolve, not about how activists might intervene to "change the world." In a word — today’s omnipresent buzzword — both Mead and Johnson are in search of innovation. They wonder and examine what types of cultural contexts afford the rapid emergence of social innovations.

The unit of cultural micro-evolution is a cluster of interacting individuals who within the special conditions provided by period and culture make choices which set a direction — a channel — in which events tend to flow until other points of divergence are reached.

There’s more about the quote at the website of the defunct Institute for Intercultural Studies, which Mead founded, and more about evolutionary clusters in Steve Joshua Heims’s The Cybernetics Group, which tells a story of the Macy Conferences, where Mead was a key participant.