symbol, gene, and cultural evolution

Fri, 28 Jan 1994 12:05:31 CST

Biological evolution is a Mendeliaan process. Cultural evolution is unlike
biological evolution in that it is not Mendelian--it is Lamarckian. Children
CAN inherit changes acquired by their parents IN THE LATTERS' LIFETIME.
This is quite different from Mendelian process. For instance, in a
Lamarckian process, Jewish males should all be born without foreskins, since
Jews have been cutting them off for all those millenia. But they keep getting
born with foreskins, providing employment for mohels. By contrast, a young
man who had learned to make the Nukuoro style single hull, no washstrake canoe
built one on his home island, Kapingamarangi, in 1921. There was never
another traditional, washstrake-with-triple-outrigger-booms built thereafter.
In a Mendelian process, we should have expected that there would, over several
generations, be a gradual increase in the frequency of production of Nukuoro
style canoes with a concommitant decrease in the frequency of traditional
canoes produced. To use even an analogy between the symbol and the gene, one
has to specify transmission PROCESSES and the PROCESSES of change in the USE
of the unit specified. The demonstration that the symbol is a UNIT of some
sort will produce more muddles than you can begin to shake a stick at. This
is not to say that evolutionary process is a useless way of thinking about
culture; far from it. But this is an exercise in particulars, with
generalities as an outcome of comparing a well documented range of cases.
Assuming symbol as a unit and/or assuming a Mendelian process of change will
run the comparison aground before it ever gets off the ground.

Mike Lieber