Some human phenotypes have very low levels of canalization, such as many gender roles (e.g., pink is for girls). Others, such as having two arms and two legs, are quite canalized.
If the environment suddenly changed such that walking upright or having a large cerebral cortex was dangerous, humans would be in big trouble.
I think societal infrastructure is like the canalization of traits of a species.
Not long ago it was necessary to travel to have access to knowledge. Libraries were built. Schools were built. Eventually, buses were purchased and children all over the country were transported to these schools each day. Thousands of teachers teach essentially the same lessons to kids everyday, with varying degrees of quality. Housing kids at schools during daylight hours made it much easier for parents to be employed outside of the home. Our society is very much structured around this.
However, we now live in a world where anyone with access to the internet does not need to travel to have access to knowledge. Further, it is extremely inefficient (horrifyingly so) to have thousands of teachers simultaneously developing lectures for the same topic. In case this is not clear, consider the following two approaches for teaching algebra I to students:
- each algebra teacher (there are thousands of them) develops her/his own lectures (this is many hours of work per teacher, where each teacher is essentially replicating the work of the others)
- they use whatever standard textbook the school district chooses
- people around the country develop interactive algebra 1 lessons (including animations) and submit them online (to something like Khan academy)
- users vote on which lecture is most effective (similar to how memrise gives you several options, and you can rate them)
- algebra students can go to the site and work through the best lesson or lessons
In scenario 2 all it takes is one extremely talented and passionate person to make a great algebra lesson. This tool can then be used by everyone for many years. That is extremely efficient, relative to scenario 1, where there is a lot of replication of much lower quality work.
However, it is very difficult to design a new educational system, when the current infrastructure is so canalized. We are starting to see resources such as Khan academy used in classrooms, but the basic setup of children being bussed to public schools to be segregated by age, to deal with chimp politics, to follow a rigid schedule, while learning from dry textbooks, hasn’t really changed. It’s all small adaptations while maintaining the key features of the species.
In general, the richest societies build with the technology of the day. Decades or centuries later, it’s potentially easier for a society that is developing for the first time to build with the new technologies, than it is for an older society to rebuild.