Civilization resembles a snowball in that it picks up behaviors along the way that, unless they cause a lost war or great depression, end up becoming part of the ever-accumulating “new normal.”
This condition arises from reward structures and fear of social blame. No one gets in trouble for doing what everyone else is doing; those who try something new, on the other hand, face risk of actual failure.
In this way, civilizations aggregate mediocre solutions as normal behaviors. That is, things that do not fail but also are not optimum are rewarded, while improvement is discouraged.
This follows a social pattern, since in social groups it is considered rude to excel above others with a new method, since then everyone else feels dumb for having done whatever it is the old mediocre way.
When a group shares an experience and gains approval from others, then, they keep doing it until it fails in some huge and horrible way. When this involves broad social changes, it is the Ratchet Effect (quoting from The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson by Godfrey Hodgson) which says that people adopt the methods learned within the bureaucracy and thus spread the bureaucracy:
Government service in World War II — in the War Department or other civilian departments for the slightly older men, in the Office of Strategic Services or elite military units for the younger ones — gave a whole generation of ambitious and educated Americans a taste for power, as opposed to business success, and an orientation toward government service which they never lost. When they went back to their law offices or their classrooms, they took with them contacts, attitudes and beliefs they had learned in war service.
Systems spread like disease this way. Since the system rewards certain behaviors, those proliferate as people spread them by emulation. Then the next generation imitates that in turn, and like a virus, the behavior spreads.
Humanity only avoids yeastlike repetition of the mediocre when its best people are drafted to compile wisdom and apply it, altering behaviors toward an elusive standard of perpetual improvement.
When we look at history, we see that it is a record of exceptional individuals willing to apply themselves aggressively toward pursuit of a clarity regarding an issue and then qualitative improvement of human behavior on the topic.
This applies to war leaders as well as inventors, and shows us the best of human growth and progress. We get nowhere by letting social forces reduce us to conformity; we become powerful through the exceptional.
However, bureaucracies hate the exceptional because they are difficult to control, and prefer large groups of the mediocre who can be told exactly what to do. This is the “Mandarin Method” and the Ratchet Effect spreads it like airborne AIDS.