Re: Evolutionary Envelopments (also excessively long)

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Wed, 4 Oct 1995 13:56:17 -0600

On Fri, 29 Sep 1995, Matthew S. Tomaso wrote:

> For John Giaccobbe and interested others:
> "Selection acts on the group rather than the individual in cultural evolution.
> Criteria for selective value include, efficiency of energy capture, survival
> and reproductive success, and even perceived satisfaction of needs and wants".
> Please note that I am not arguing that you make value judgments when you
> take this kind of selectionist stance. That is an argument that is only
> used by people who really don't understand Darwin. Also, one could argue,
> profitably, that the linguistic analogy inevitably leads to similar problems
> - like the vast difference we see between preshitory and history. However....
> What possible practical use could this notion of cultural
> selection serve in anthropology? - it denies the reseearcher any right to
> engage in active participation in political causes as a scientist and
> professional (in fact, it raises the status of the researcher above that of
> his/her subjects), it reduces culture to a meaningless category or black box
> in which selection and adaptation occur, and finally, it rationalizes
> culture-cide as a 'natural' process. Of course, we can weave ideology and
> anything else into our evolutionary models at will, but the farther we get
> away from the original biological applications of the evolutionary model,
> and the greater the quantity of adjustments we have to make to engage issues
> of culture, the less valuable and distinctly evolutionary the model becomes.
> It starts to look more and more like history.
> snip<
> peace,
> Matt
This is the 'survival of the *fittest*' assumption which continues to be
reiterated ad infinitum. If you think about it it is a stupid idea,
because logically it leads to one single *fittest* species (or culture)
surviving at the expense of all the others. That is not how evolution
works. In fact, it doesn't take long to see that *all* the fit species
survive. But what is fit at this point in evolutionary time may prove to
be unfit at a later point. That is why evolution thrives on diversity.
The greater the diversity, the better the chance life has of surviving and
expanding. The same goes for culture, cultures, and societies.
Ethnocide of all competitors by a dominant culture puts the victor at
risk of being less able to adapt to changing conditions. In fact the
very act of ethnocide changes the conditions.

For most of my professional career I have been arguing that while
adaptation has characterized biological evolution, the unique achievement
of culture has been to introduce *adaptability* into the human equation.
We are thus much more ready to respond to changing conditions (though
obviously sometimes human groups do *not* respond appropriately, or
quickly enough - or they are outgunned).

Given this framework, it should also be easy to see how the individual
comes into the picture. The very process of socialization
(enculturation) entails unique experience for every individual. Each
person will have a somewhat different experience of their own culture.
This will perhaps lead to new ways of doing traditional things, or even
more than that, introducing new ideas and new behaviors. This again
maintains the matrix of variability that is so essential for a culture to
adapt to changing conditions.

Now I'm going to preach a little: It thus should be to everyone's
evolutionary advantage to encourage and maintain diversity. We thought that was what the 60s were all about,
allowing everyone to "do their own thing." That is what is so
frightening about this post-modern world where ethnic tensions are
growing, racism is re-emerging, and ethnic cleansing seems to be a high
priority political goal. If we want to survive we need to get back to a
tolerance for our differences and an appreciation for and celebration of
human diversity.

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

Much charitable endeavor is motivated by an unconscious
desire to peer into lives that one is glad to be unable
to share. . . . . Edward Sapir