Re: Pitfalls of Social Evolutionism, Genuine and Spurious

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Thu, 19 May 1994 07:02:20 +0800

On Wed, 18 May 1994, carter pate wrote:

> To me "free will" is an absolutist extreme in a religious or philosophical arg
> ument, which I'd rather lay aside from anthropological discourse. "Choice"
> allows a little more variation, and just like randomness, it might exercise a t
> iny bit of influence on events, especially if they are not overdetermined.
> But in social and cultural events, it seems to me that an insistence on
> "determinism" sounds like a blind insistence that everything can be reduced to
> a mathematical predictive formula. Don't we all know that's not very helpful
> in much of the cocio-cultural realm?

Was it the Karma of the West to end up with its concept of free will in a
particularly strong incarnation? Was Free Will in the West predetermined?

I think the interesting question WRT 'free will' is why the concept
bothers to exist at all. From the anthropological perspective, it is less
interesting whether IN FACT such a thingamabob called Free Will actually
IS than *why* it, and concepts like it, are present as cultural traits at
all, and why it appears to have different forms in different cultures and
in different settings within any given culture. Whether free will
"exists" (kinda too much a philosophical question for my tastes, too) is
pretty much an open question (and the answer is pretty much irrelevant in
terms of the important questions); the belief in Free Will is empirical
and demonstratably true, at least for our own culture.

Daring now to go back to a biological analogy.... genes exist which can
control the rate of mutation, or put in other words, even the mutation
rate *itself* is subject to evolutionary pressures. Matter of fact, it
gets even wilder than that.... under certain conditions of environmental
stress (such as the introduction of a poison), bacteria have been observed
to send out gene "messages" which act to increase the mutuation rate
within the population. Oh yea, it gets worse than that -- they can even
send out other messages containing the genetic "solution" to the
environmental problem being faced once one is found.... sometimes I think,
when I find myself thinking about it, which has been pretty often when I
read this list, I think that the real problem with a lot of the
anthropological conceptualisations which lead to a rejection of evolution
as a route to understanding culture in general are based not so much on
OVERestimation of human abilities but rather an UNDERestimation of what
exists, and has so clearly evolved, out there in the rest of the big wide
biotic world.... but I degress from free will.

What sort of cultural 'function' might Free Will have? What role could it
play in cultural processes? How could this relate to its evolution in
specific cultural settings? What would be its effect on other cultural
processes and beliefs? This, by the by, is the kind of stuff that fits
under my concept of CS2 [ok, it IS a horrific term!] where symbolic traits
interact and are selected in terms of the overall cultural system. I have
wondered if something like Free Will can act, like a mutuator gene, to
effect the RATE of GENERATION of new traits within a given culture. If so
(and it seems that cross cultural and temporal studies are quite within
the realm of possiblity) it could be quite interesting. Given that we can
expect that the general rate of evolutionary change will be proportional
to the amount of hereditable variation (Fisher's Fundamental Theorum),
factors which increase the amount of variation in system will increase the
rate of evolution of the phenotypes generated even if the specific
variants produced are not intrinically directional. So, even if we don't
choose to have free will (if free will is determined), the presence of
free will as a trait in the cultural system should be expected to lead to
situation in which free will APPEARS to be actually existing and
functioning! [I think this argument is kind of cute!! :{) ].