Cultural Catalysis in Fiction and Reality

Cultural catalysis is a major theme of Atlas Hugged, my sequel and antidote to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Here is how Professor Howard Head explains the concept to his student apprentice, John Galt III. If you’re wondering which character is based on me, the answer is neither and both.

“Are you familiar with the concept of catalysis?”

“Sure. From chemistry. A catalyst is a substance that greatly increases the rate of a chemical reaction, even when added in tiny amounts, and is not used up in the process.”

“Correct. Do you know how this is accomplished?”

“Well, in crude terms, a catalytic molecule latches onto other molecules and holds them in a position that binds them to each other. Once they are bound, the catalytic molecule is released so that it can repeat the operation. That’s why it isn’t used up in the process.”

“Correct. You really have become well spoken, John. No one would guess that you are just entering your junior year. Even though the concept of catalysis is easy to understand, it is almost miraculous in what it can do. Imagine a chemical reaction taking place slowly or not at all, and then—poof!—just a sprinkling of the catalytic substance is transformative. If that’s not magic, what would be?

“Right!” I laughed. “As magical as any spell.”

“Now let’s think about catalysis is the context of cultural change.”

Poof! No one could do metaphorical transfer better than Howard. First he rehearsed the familiar, in this case chemical catalysis, and then moved it over to a new context, in this case rates of cultural change. I began to get the connections immediately but let him continue.

“Let’s think about the acceptance of Darwin’s theory as like a chemical reaction that spread quickly and spontaneously for the study of the natural world—although decades were still required—and much more slowly or not at all for the study of humanity. That’s where things stand today, but adding a catalytic agent could change everything.”

“And you think that my wealth can be used as a catalytic agent?”

“Yes, but only if we go about it in the right way. No amount of money will be enough if we go about it in the wrong way.”

“And the right way is…?”

“It’s not as if I know all the answers, but let’s think about how we might function as catalytic agents. We’d find people and organizations that we want to connect and bring them together until they bond, releasing us to repeat the operation. In principle, we could accomplish in a matter of years what would otherwise require decades or centuries. It would appear magical, but it would be only the magic of catalysis.”

In Atlas Hugged, four years are required for catalysis to take place in the academic world, followed by worldwide catalysis in 100 days.

Atlas Hugged is fiction but the concept of cultural catalysis is a reality that deserves our utmost attention. If it’s true that positive change can take place in a matter of years, rather than decades or not at all, then we want to know about it.

In a sense, cultural catalysis is already upon us. In the Internet Age, the encounter rates required for the spread of ideas are orders of magnitude faster than past ages. Rather than every generation being much like the one that preceded it, every decade is now different from the past. As a single illustration, Facebook is less than 20 years old!

The problem is that rapid cultural change is not the same as rapid positive cultural change. This is one of the most important lessons to learn about evolution, no matter how fast or slow. It frequently results in outcomes that benefit me but not you, us but not them, or our short-term gain at the expense of our long-term welfare.

In my academic writing on this subject (1,2), I make a distinction between two meanings of the phrase “complex adaptive system (CAS)”: A complex system that is adaptive as a system (CAS1) and a complex system composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies (CAS2). A healthy organism is an example of CAS1. A cancer-ridden organism, a despotic society, a civil war, or an overheating earth are examples of CAS2.

It follows that if we want to catalyze rapid positive cultural evolution, we must know how convert CAS2 systems into CAS1 systems at multiple scales, including the scale of the whole earth. The knowledge for how to do this exists, at least in broad outline, but it is currently possessed by only a tiny fraction of the people who need to know about it.

So that is specifically what needs to be catalyzed: knowledge of how to convert systems of agents operating at cross purposes to each other into systems of agents who work together for the common good. That was the catalytic magic that Howard Head and John Galt III brought about in Atlas Hugged, and what can be brought about in the real world as well. The easiest way for you to learn more, and perhaps even become a catalytic agent in your own right, is to join the Prosocial Commons.