Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Disanalogies between cultural and biological evolution

Clifford, in a recent comment, suggested that cultural evolution and biological evolution are different kinds of processes. This is a common claim. There are several reasons why people think it.

1. Culture is thought to change through predetermined stages, from primitive hunter-gatherer to urban industrial.

2. Culture is thought to develop through planning and foresight, particularly in the sciences and technologies.

3. Culture involves, it is said, the inheritance of acquired characters.

All three are supposed to be non-Darwinian. Indeed, they are, except for the last, but that doesn't cause my claim that culture is darwinian any grief, because they are false.

Claim 1 is that of August Comte's, and it is the sense in which early twentieth century anthropologists discussed "cultural evolution". As a result, the demolition of this view by Franz Boas and his students led to the longer-term disfavour of seeing evolution in culture. They had, quite simply, the wrong view of evolution. Now, I don't know what the relation between Comte's positivism and Lamarck's evolutionism was, but this is Lamarckian evolution, in the first sense. Lamarck thought that evolution moved through one of a few series of potential improvements from primitive to complex. The way Herbert Spencer, whose ideas directly influenced the cultural evolutionists Boaz attacked, treated evolution, he, too, was Lamarckian in this regard.

Culture does not always, or necessarily even often, improve. When it does, the improvements can sometimes only exist for a short while. Culture is often accretive, in that it builds on the past ("shoulders of giants"), but equally it can lose technologies, sciences and ideas. We naively think of culture as a march of progress, but really, as a good many folk have noted, each generation has to fight to retain the gains its predecessors made.

Claim 2 is negated by Hume's Problem of Induction. We may plan ahead, of course we do, but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, and economists would be benign Lord Chancellors. Adam Smith showed that large ensembles engaged in economic trade generate outcomes (he wrongly thought stable positive equilibria) that nobody has planned. What some are pleased to call the Law of Unintended Consequences means that we simply cannot predict how complex and chaotic systems will behave even if we did happen to know all there is about them. We just don't have the time to make the calculations. But we don't know all the facts about anything cultural.

Hume's Problem is that we can only assume consistency with the past in which we learned what we know. But inductions based on the past (the only kind of inferences that enable us to make predictions) cannot by definition take into account the unknown. Things can change that throw our expectations out of whack. This is true in "simple" cases like biology. Culture is more complex (as it includes the biology of the cultural actors).

Claim 3 is a more complicated matter. Yes, the actors in culture inherit characters that were acquired by their parents and others. That's what education and socialisation are all about. But the evolving entities in culture aren't the agents. Human agency remains now pretty much what it always has been. If it evolves, it does so biologically. What evolves are the things that are transmitted in culture, what Lumsden and Wilson called "culturgens", and more recently (a bit), Dawkins called "memes". And the "environment" to which they are adapted, the economic interaction domain of memes, includes those agents, and a whole lot more.

Darwin was, in this respect, something of a Lamarckian (we don't want to overstate the matter - his "Lamarckism" was restricted to claiming that a trait that was used would be more strongly inherited than a trait that was not. The origin of the trait itself was not Lamarckian). If characters were acquired, darwinian evolution would be faster, but it would still be darwinian in a deep formal sense.

I have discussed these ideas in more detail in my "Appearance of Lamarckism in the Evolution of Culture", which can be found on my website.

On cultural evolution in anthropology, there's a good book by Bee called Patterns and processes.

Bee, R. (1974). Patterns and processes: an introduction to anthropological strategies for the study of sociocultural change. New York, Free Press/Macmillan.

Wilkins, J. S. (2001). The appearance of Lamarckism in the evolution of culture. Darwinism and evolutionary economics. eds J. Laurent and J. Nightingale. Cheltenham UK, Edward Elgar: 160-183.