Re: Social Evolution

Sun, 15 May 1994 00:29:00 PDT

Brown writes:

"At any rate, I find the whole idea of social evolution questionable at
best, especially if by evolution we mean progress. I doubt
that I have to review here the sorts of critiques that have been made by
anthropologists and others of this idea. Why is it that people want to
argue for social evolution -- especially Western academics and politicians?
This, for me at least, is the most important question to ask, not whether
or not biological evolution is a good metaphor for social evolution."

Biological evolution refers to change in allele frequencies in a population;
i.e., change in the frequency of traits in the population. By analogy,
social evolution would be change in the frequency of social traits; cultural
evolution would be change in the frequency of cultural traits. Or, to put it
another way, evolution is the antithesis of stability and stasis. Viewed
this way, clearly there is both social and cultural evolution. The problem
is not whether there is social/cultural
evolution, but what is the process of evolution. Natural
selection as it is understood in terms of Mendelian genetics and which serves
as the basis for developing models of the process of biological
evolution, is not the process underlying social/cultural evolution. One
alternative approach that has been taken (e.g., Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman,
Boyd and Richradson, among others) is to (1) view culture as learned
behaviors and (2) to consider the phenotype as having both a genetic
component and a learned component (which brings back Larmarck's inheritance
of acquired characteristics) and to model the process by which the phenotype
comes to have its particular configuration. Transmission (in the sense of
characteristics being passed from one organism to another) is not only
genetic (parent to offspring) but learned (parent to offspring via learning,
peer to peer learning, etc).

While models of learned behavior are not new,
this approach has embedded transmission of traits via learning into the same
calculus used for biological evolution; namely, fitness. Fitness need not be
directly linked to the behavior that is learned, per se, but can be linked to
the behavior that provides the basis for learning; e.g., the behavior that
might be selected via natural selection could be something like: imitate
successful persons. Under this kind of imitation, if person X does behavior
Y and is seen as "successful" then others would imitate X and adopt behavior
Y. This avoids the quandry of trying to put behaviors (such as Y) into the
same mix as genetic traits and leads to models that can include behaviors
that on the face of it do not directly confer any increased fitness.

Coming back to Brown's comment about "Why ... argue for social evolution".
One answer is: The name of the game is to understand variation and
the focus on (social) evolution (in the sense discussed above as change in
frequency of traits) has to do trying to understand the why and how of

D. Read