Survival of the fittest semantics

Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Sat, 16 Sep 1995 17:14:51 -0400

Some recent posts, while making good arguments, contain some
statements that deserve comment.

From: Nick Corduan <nickc@IQUEST.NET>

I do not recall mentioning any great diversity in Europe. I
would agree that there was probably less -- and there should be,
for their racial stocks were closer together in a closer
chronological time, and they had more frequent contact with one
another (due to horses, etc...), resulting in a general
similarity in terms of politics and religion. I would say,
though, that you are perhaps overgeneralizing just as badly as I
when you make that statement.

Comment: While it may seem trivial, or possibly nit-picking to
some, a condition I deem likely for lack of other comment, the
statement above presents a problem for someone who teaches
evolution and especially human evolution to undergraduates. The
use of "racial stock" in conjunction with posited similarities
and differences in cultural behavior connotes and can, and I say
here CAN, not necessarioy DOES, lead to very misleading
conclusions on what "racial stocks" are. Two points:

1. I teach my students that "race" has no biological validity.
Not too long ago this was claimed, on this list, as one of the
major findings of anthropology. I wonder, however, how widely
this finding has been accepted.

2. There is some doubt about the inferred amount of human
variation postulated here for people in Europoe versus those in
North America. Anatomically modern homo sapiens have been
running around Europe for what, about 90,000 years and been the
only hominids for 35,000 to 40,000 years. Homo sapiens have been
in North America for only, and I realize this is contentitious
territory, 15,000 (?) years. Time tends to be correlated with
increasing variation, hence there should actually be more
variation in Europe than North America and there probably is. I
cannot afford Calli-Sforza's 150$ book, so maybe someone who has
read it can add something here.

John A. Giacobbe; wrote

All of the products of culture are created within a universe
permeated by selective forces, and must at some level be affected
by them. That does not mean all cultural attributes originate as
the result of selective pressure, or are even strongly
influenced by selection whatsoever.

Comment: The problem here is with the use of "forces" and
"pressure" as in "selective forces" and "selective pressure." I
explain to my students that there are evolutionary "processes"
that result in organisms with certain characteristics, but that
there are no "evolutionary forces." while this may seem to be a
linguistic nit it has connotations as well. Forces imply
determinism while processes are contingent. when trying to
explain the contingent nature of evolution the use of terms such
as forces is just confusing even when those using the terminology
know what they mean.

From: "Robert S. Wrathall" <Wrathalls@AOL.COM>

This is an interesting subject. I would like to add emphasis to
this point that there is nothing more fundamental to culture than
the genome. The selective pressure is immense and all of our
existence attests to selective this selective pressure. We are
not aware of it as fish are not aware of water, except at the
interface with air.

Take something like aesthetics. Why should flowers be "pretty"?
Indeed, if we were not bred with the ability to perceive their
beauty, they would not be. And where did we learn about beauty?
A million years of selection, of course. That is what we did in
all those forests and caves during all those millenia. We
learned beauty, aesthetics, love and cooperation. We learned
culture. We selected for culture.

And who did we learn beauty from? Who taught us that a flower is
beautiful? Bees of course. All genomes are connected in a deep

Bob Wrathall

Comment: Once again, language, hopefully, and not concepts.
Besides the use of "pressure" there is the point that we as homo
sapiens are not "bred" with abilities. Further, we did not
"select" culture. The human capacity for culture is the result
of the process of natural selection and the other processes of

Please do not misunderstand, I find the idea of linking genomes
in this way intriguing. What I fear, however, is the determinism
in the semantics. There is nothing truly different in the links
proposed being contingent such that a concept of beauty is the
result, especially when we consider that such a concept was not
in any way inevitable. In fact I find the ideas more intriguing
when approached in this way.

vance geiger