Re: Repro/Evol Culture

Stephanie Wilson (swilson@BIGCAT.MISSOURI.EDU)
Mon, 31 Jan 1994 15:24:58 -0600


On Thu, 27 Jan 1994, Stephanie Nelson wrote:

> Stephanie Nelson here responding to Stephanie Wilson's post.
> I have no problem with Stephanie's point that culture must be reproduced, but
> I started to get uncomfortable when this point slipped into her next one--
> that culture must also "evolve." She continues: "Some non-necessary or
> harmful aspects would not be passed on. If [they were], the population would
> begin to decline."
> Given this logic, the cultures that
> are the largest and oldest would be the most culturally evolved (Han Chinese
> would be the oldest and largest, perhaps).

>From a biological point of view, this is not really what evolution refers
to. There is no rating system of what is more/less successful. Evolution
refers only to how well adapted a species is to its environment-- outside
that environment, it may not be adaptive at all.

> I am
> reminded of Gregory Bateson's warnings that most human systems have no effec-
> tive parking brakes, and can quickly become pathological. The other side of
> the problem is the interpretive one, and it's a biggie: how would we begin
> to measure and evaluate Stephanie's notion of "decline?" Would successful
> cultural evolution be characterized by a rise in population or a judicious
> use of birth control? Would increasing technological complexity be seen as
> evolutionary? Would the cultures with the most technically advanced nukes
> be the most evolved? What would we single out as markers of decline?
> High infant mortality, illiteracy, crime rate, drug abuse? And if so, are
> oral cultures with high infant mortality rates who ritualistically use drugs
> (the Yanomama, perhaps) less evolved?
I agree with Bateson's warning, and, in effect, this is what I am
referring to when I say a culture can decline. Whether the population
rises or stays the same is not necessarily relevant. When a culture or a
species begins to "decline" (a poor choice of words on my part), it begins
to lose its reproductive potential. In a species, it means the loss of
genetic material or something which interferes with the species biological
reproduction. In culture, I suppose it could mean a loss of information--
people not talking in their native language; legends and myths that are
not told to the next generation; etc. Some of this is natural evolution,
but some information assists the culture in its own survival (agricultural
information; what to do in times of drought/monsoon/etc). If this
information is lost, it can be damaging to the culture and the population
on a much broader scale. Aside from the size of the population,
there are also qualititative ways for a population/culture to decline:
decreasing nutritional intake; decreasing lifespan; increasing disease
rates; decreasing participation in cultural activities (i.e. religious
rites); etc.

As Mike Lieber pointed out to me though, cultural evolution is
Lamarkian, not Darwinian in nature. A culture can borrow information from
another culture to replace or augment its own information. This can then
be passed on to the next generation.

In other words, I don't really think there is a hierarchy of cultures,
but some cultures are definitely more suited for their particular
environments. I don't think I would do all that well in the Arctic tundra
or the tropical rainforest.

Stephanie Wilson