Re: Social Evolution

Fri, 13 May 1994 16:25:40 PST

Okay, I see your point, Jim. But someone else asked me whether I meant that
culture was
evolving or that people were, and while I was thinking about that your post
came, and made it
clear that actually I should have been thinking of culture not people. People
evolve in biological
ways (as a group; individuals do not evolve at all). Cultures evolve in cultural
Thus what I should have written was that when one person decides to take a
partner along when
going sealing, that is a mutation: the culture has a new idea in it, like a new
gene in a biological
gene pool. You can think of a culture as a set of ideas. When someone has a new
idea that adds
to the pool. When the idea is adopted by all the other sealers, it has managed
to become
dominant in the gene pool.
Similarly, the idea of making a VHS has survived while the idea of making a Beta
has not.
Nobody has to starve to accomplish any of this.
I hope my thoughts are clearer now, and make more sense!

>Next, Karen Eva Carr wrote:
> Seems to me that counterparts to mutation = any new practice or custom or
> invention. Thus ... when one person decides to take a partner along when
> going sealing, that is a mutation. When all the people who take partners
> live and the ones who do not take partners die, that is a successful
> mutation.
>This seems like a good demonstration of one of the things that I think is wrong
>with biological evolution as a model for cultural/societal change. The
>biological analogy implies inheritance of traits, and something akin to natural
>selection. Thus, if one person took a partner sealing, and was more
>successful, his descendants would do the same, while the contemporaries of the
>innovator and their descendants would not. Those who took partners would be
>more successful, live longer, and have more descendants, who also would take
>partners. Eventually everyone would be descended from the first person who
>took a partner, and they would all go sealing in pairs. If that was the way
>cultural traits spread through a population, the biological analogy would work
>fine. That is not the way the world works however. More likely, one person
>would take a partner sealing, the two-man team would kill more seals, everyone
>would talk about what a great idea it was, and within a season or two everyone
>would be sealing with someone. A few people might hold out, but if they came
>close to being selected against (i.e., starving to death), hey would change
>their ways.
>Simply put, the ways that cultural traits spread through a population have no
>analogy in biological evolution. This is even clearer in Karen Eva Carr's next
> Thus for example making VHS players has turned out to be a successful
> mutation, while making Betas has not.
>Do we have any example of Beta manufacturers failing to reproduce because of
>bad business decisions? If not, then the biological analogy does not apply.
>I suppose that is enough flame bait for one post. Just to clarify my position
>let me say that I am not against using analogy to biological evolution as a
>tool for thinking about cultural change. But it can only be a starting point.
>We need to consider carefully the rather striking differences between the ways
>that genes mutate and the ways that new cultural traits arise, and between the
>transmission of genes and cultural practices. We also need to be careful about
>assuming that anything like natural selection applies to cultural traits. In
>some cases it may, but in many cases people will simply change their behavior
>rather than be selected against.
>Most importantly, we need to guard against the narrow (and common) view that
>only models that stress adaptation and analogy to biological evolution are
>scientific. Both sides of the debate seem at times to accept this assertion,
>leading those who do not find biological evolution a useful model to argue
>against science itself (usually narrowly conceived) rather than to argue
>against the analogy. Science is using data in the attempt to develop theories
>and or models that approximate the real world as closely as possible. It is
>not the least bit unscientific to doubt that cultural change is anything like
>biological evolution, nor is it unscientific to stress the particularities of
>societies rather than search for universal generalizations, or the ways that
>our current political/cultural/societal conditions shape our theories and our
>data. It is also not unscientific to point out that those who say 'I'm
>scientific and you're not' usually are not doing good science (or at least not
>as good as they think they are).
>That the average size of polities has increased through time is an interesting
>fact that deserves explanation. But demonstrating that it occurred is not the
>same as demonstrating that biological evolution is the only (or best) model
>for understanding that change.
>Jim Allison
>Northern Arizona University
>Karen Eva Carr
History Department
Portland State University
Portland Oregon 97203
(503) 725-5472