Re: Biocultural Evolution

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Wed, 20 Sep 1995 09:37:08 +0800

On Tue, 19 Sep 1995, Mr J.M. Ottevanger wrote:

>I pondered on the implication that cultural traits are selected for their
>fitness not just in the external environment, but in an internal one i.e. an
>environment of other cultural traits. The external physical environment is of
>course still important in this scheme. I presume that the biological equivalent
>of this is genes being selected for or against because of their goodness-of-fit
>with other genes, as well as their suitability for the external environment.

You are touching here on topic which has been of major importance in
genetics in the past twenty plus years. The controversy between the
'Classical' and 'Balance' schools essentially boiled down to the question
of whether [usually] fitness applies to a specific allele, or whether the
genic interactions [metaphorically] take precedence, and hence that
evolutionary fitness is better described as having a "larger," or more
"general" focus.

Without attempting to down-play the very real controversy which still
exists in this discussion, I think it is fair to say that the Balance
folks have pretty well won the game (not denying the very real HUERISTIC
and ANALYTIC value of attributing fitness to what then become
more or less 'theoretical' genes; and while not denying that "classical"
genes DO exist, e.g. those inducing lactose tolerance or malarial

The classic (albeit difficult) text on this dispute is Lewontin's *The
genetic basis of evolutioanry change.* [1974] which seems to remain pretty
robust despite the date of issue. Much of the work of Ernst Mayr, not to
mention the highly formal work of Wright, is to the point here as well.

The relevance of all of this, of course, is that it permits us to treat
cultural traits in a more or less "black box" manner in terms of our
conceptualisation of their "nature." Requiring a "real" physical "entity"
to carry the traits (what some have named the 'meme') is unnecessary
[again, save as a hueristic, although in culural studies it might be more
of a hinderance than a help, at least IMVHO.]

> This is not surprising, because an organism must be constructed in an
> integrated way. However, I wonder whether all of these internally-referential
> considerations have anything to do with the external environment. Are some
> cultural traits only selected because of the cultural milieu, even at the
> deepest level?

In my own work, I have recognised two FOCI of cultural selection. One
type [perhaps unfortuanetly named] CS2 (cultural selection of the second
kind, though I sometimes dare to refer to it as 'symbolic selection') sees
the selective forces working pretty much WITHIN the 'symbolic ecology'
which exists in all human socieites. This seems to speak to the point you
are making. It should naturally form the focus for much important
research in areas such as power-relationships and perhaps even the rise of
"complexity" in cultures (under which conditions we seem to have the
development of an internal parastic class which, when successful, uses as
part of its coersion of the rest of society certain ideological tactics
such as religion).

CS1, in contradistiction, has more of an 'external' referant: here the
selection acts (as in the case of agriculture mentioned in another
thread, I HOPE on this list --- interesting how this discussion seems to
be happening on both the anthro and arch mailing lists)... back to topic!
Selection may be seen acting in terms of the demographic effects of the
culturally transmitted behaviour ['fitness' in the classic sense].

> If so, what is the biological equivalent? Perhaps (genetically
> determined) interindividual behaviour e.g. reproductive behaviour. Or is it
> more likely to be intra-individual gene competition, or self-replicating
> neutral DNA? Most importantly, what place does this environmentally independent
> evolution take in the theory?

As I noted at the beginning, the "biological equivalent" is easily at
hand. However, it should probably be noted that while discussing the
genic equivalents of the various cultural phenomena can be USEFUL, in the
final analysis cultural processes must be understood in the OWN terms
(except for the special case, of course, of the origin of the capacity for
culture in humans when we seek to understand the "rise" of the cultural
inhertance system from a substrate of more genetically determined
behavioural system).