Re: More Evolutionary Thoughts

Richard Spear (rspear@PRIMENET.COM)
Sun, 10 Sep 1995 09:06:21 -0800

On 10 Sep 95 at 4:14, Michael Thomas Carson wrote:

> As John Giacobbe stated, some of the basic concepts of evolutionary
> theory can work very well to aid in the explanation of cultural
> variability and change. For example, variation exists in culture.
> Culture is learned, and the available variability of culture affects what
> is likely to be learned. But people learn multiple things during a
> single lifetime, and changes and inventions are also made during a single
> lifetime. Variability in culture may even be intentionally directed.
> These aspects of cultural variability and transmission ado not work at
> all within a biological evolutionary model. Still, evolutionary theory
> is a powerful explanatory tool in understanding how and why cultural
> changes took place.

Yes, we can gain some insight through the use of analogy, but we've
got to be cautious and always remember that we are dealing with an
analogy. The idea of modeling cultural evolution on Darwinian
biological evolution is not new, of course - Spencer'searly social
evolutionary theories come to mind, as does Binford's much more
recent definition of culture as the non-biological adaptive responses
that are made.

Two questions come to mind: First, to what do cultures adapt? In
biology, the adaptation is to environmental conditions. Second, how
is cultural "success" measured? In biology success means
reproductive success. Are cultures that survive and reproduce
"successful" cultures? American "culture" (a bourgouis phenomenon)
survives (so far) and "reproduces" itself ... is it successful? What
has it adapted to? The Yanomamo culture is under considerable
external pressure and on the brink of extinction ... is it a
"failure"? Those few Yanomamo individuals who "adapt" by
acculturizing to Western cultural specifics will survive and
reproduce while their culture is engulfed by another culture ... is
the engulfing culture "better"?

There's no moral content to the observation that Nature is " of
tooth and claw ..." ... there's moral content to the observation that
the Yanomamo culture is a "failure" and that American culture is a
"success". Humans are capable of praxis - considered and planned
action. We use it to create and to destroy - and the *choice* is
ours. Few other creatures are capable of this. We also "violate" the
principles of survival every time we put ourselves at risk to help a
stranger (yeah, I'm aware of the sociobiological arguments - just

Sorry to ramble on ... Richard