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

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Evolving society

I have Lurkers who Support me in Email... err, well, actually, I have correspondents who pose interesting questions. Gary Bohn asked me:
I noticed that you are a strong believer in applying evolutionary processes to non-biological systems. I am interested in the evolution of social constructs, such as marriage and morals/ethics and how selection operates on them. If you have time I'd be interested in hearing your views.

Gary is correct. I am a pan-evolutionist. So far as I can tell, the principles that occur in any complex changing system are evolutionary, and what is more, darwinian (small "d" to indicate a class of processes of change that are applicable to many things rather than just to living systems).

Now some have called this Universal Darwinism, such as Dawkins, Hull, Dennett and Plotkin, By this they mean that evolutionary processes satisfy a list of preconditions - there are replicators, interactors, lineages and selection pressures. For a time, I thought this exhausted evolution. But now I don't. Let me explain why, before we get into how social institutions themselves evolve.

1. Evolution and natural selection are not identical, nor is it true that even most evolution in biology is adaptive evolution. In fact, adaptation is, as G. C. Williams put it in his classic 1966 book Adaptation and Natural Selection, an onerous explanatory hypothesis, to be used only under rigorous conditions. We do not need to be panselectionist in biology. Why ought we be panselectionist in other domains?

2. The distinction between replicators and interactors, known as the Hull-Dawkins Distinction after the two thinkers who formulated it, is a sufficient condition for evolution to occur, I accept. But it is not a necessary condition. Replicators are things that make more of themselves at high fidelity - as Dawkins put it, they must have copying fidelity, fecundity of replication, and longevity over evolutionary time. But a replicator is a special case of a broader class of entities: reproducers. This is a term of William Wimsatt's. A reproducer is something that copies itself better than randomly. That is, if something causes something else to occur or develop, and the "daughter" entity is like the "parent" entity, then it is a reproducer. [Side comment: this is the traditional view of a species, something that reproduces like from like. You can find it in Epicurus' teachings.]

This is a complicated point, so let me explain. Darwin knew nothing of replicators. All he required was that the progeny should reproduce the variable trait of the parent, in order for selection to occur. There is a region that is undefined, called the "edge of chaos" by Stuart Kaufmann, between random similarity of caused progeny and exact duplication in all respects, which the notion of a reproducer covers, while replicators are only those that, like the genes they were generalised from, reproduce at high fidelity, at the exact end of the spectrum.

Evolution, I believe, can occur when reproducers approach some limiting tradeoff between exactness of reproduction and interactive success. It does not need to be the exactness-approaching fidelity of replication. If species are reproducers, they may, as Gould thinks, be subject to a selection process (I don't think that, by the way, but that's my opinion). Eldredge once call this "more-making", but I prefer Wimsatt's term. In any case, social evolution may or may not have replicators, but it does have reproducers. And these include moral beliefs, moral codes, and moral systems.

So, moral systems are not necessarily adapted to anything even if they evolve, and the things that evolve need not be like genes. In short, I do not see that memes are necessary for the evolution of society and culture.

Well, what is it that does evolve in sociocultural evolution? It could be an institution like marriage, sure. At one fairly recent point, the only folk who married were the aristocracy, to whom legitimacy of inheritance was significant. As the middle class arose with the rise of trade and capitalist practices, they, too, needed to legitimate inheritance, and so it became important to them to marry. The lower class in Europe was last, but that occurred too, as wealth became more widespread, relative to the pre-industrial poor.

But it might be a practice, like the wedding traditions that once were ethnic isolates (breaking glasses, toasting the bride and groom, and so forth), which both changes, and spreads like a pathogen that evolves as it infects populations. A practice has no exact specifications, necessarily - there may be a form of marriage in a book of common prayer, but the details of how that is played out are imitated from instance to instance. Why, for example, is the groom usually on the right? So it is not a replicator. But it is reproduced.

Or it might in fact be something very like a replicator. An equation that is a model of something in science, such as Einstein's equation E = mc2, will reproduce in the right context very exactly. But in another context (say, the society of bad TV scriptwriters) it might get morphed out of shape. Whether it is a replicator or not depends on how it is transmitted.

Gary asked about morals, I suspect, because one of the ongoing objections to evolutionary accounts of society, whether or not they are darwinian, is moral relativity. "How can you have morals if you allow that morals evolve?" ask the critics. That is a rather big question. Let's deal with it next time.

By the way, happy arbitrary change of calendrical period...