Re: biocultural evolution (somewhat long)

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Fri, 22 Sep 1995 16:19:50 +0800

On Wed, 20 Sep 1995, Rob Quinlan wondered:
RQ> if Dave Rindos might be willing to elaborate on his
RQ> most recent posting.

Sure, I'll give it a shot, taking the liberty of considering at the
same time, some of the related comments made by others (and doing a bit
of rearranging for purposes of presentation). [though I DO worry this
post will drag on a bit....]

RQ> Third, how is that we can think of cultural processes in their
RQ> OWN terms without reference to the nature of cultural animals
RQ> who are the originators of cultural processes?

As Iain Davidson noted a while ago (was that on this list or Arch-L?),
evolutionary processes must be understood in temporal terms (I would add
geographic as well). Hence, the process is a trans-generational one. I
think this should cause no great problems to anybody.

>From this it should be clear that (as in genetic processes), individuals
are the focus of SELECTIVE forces, whilst it is the POPULATION which
EVOLVES. Therefore when we speak of understanding cultural PROCESSES, the
focus of our analysis will be the culturally transmitted information, not
the bearers of that information (the individual humans). To say this, of
course, is NOT to reify culture, or separate it from the actors involved
(an error which certainly is NOT restricted to darwinian practictioners!),
but merely to recognise our shared, anthropological, Culture Concept.

In this, it is likely that the only "nature" of humans we need consider is
their cultural nature -- other *possible* limitations upon that nature, for
our purposes either being inconsequential [e.g that no language will use
as a phone a sound the human vocal system cannot make] or inherently
unstudiable ["provide me an example of a thought a human being cannot

RQ> Second, how does a realization that genes interact to produce
RQ> traits (adaptive or otherwise) allow us to treat the units
RQ> (or whatever) of cultural transmission as a "black box"?

This concern was echoed by Jeremy Ottevanger, who noted:
JO> I, like Rob, would
JO> take issue over the "black box" approach Dave suggests.

In the posting referred here I was attempting (perhaps less than
successfully) to make a rather simple point: we do not need either a
material coding mechanism, nor a fully developed theory for the neural
coding (or whatever) of culture to apply a selectionist theory to the
explanation of change. The double helix, and all that, did NOT change in
any fundamental manner the way in which Darwinian evolutionary ecology
(for example) had been done. And interestingly, Darwin was able to
develop his basic theory not only in ignorance of the underlying coding
mechaism, but with a fundamentally incorrect model for inheritance.

Hence, by referring to the UNimportance of coming up with the cultural
analogues for genes, alleles, chromosomes, etc, and by stressing the very
real complexities of even that system of coding information, I was merely
attempting to make the point that, for now, we can do perfectly good
trans-generational studies without worrying about the details at that
particular level of analysis.

[This is NOT to say that a more rigorous discussion of matters such as
'thought,' 'action,' and the like is not desirable -- indeed, we are in
desperate need of a decent natural taxonomy for 'kinds' of human
behaviour, but this is NOT a problem peculiar to cultural selectionism,

Treating the details of what is occuring inside the heads of individuals
during teaching and learning [enculturation in the largest of senses]
therefore can become a "black box" for the purposes of our analyses.
Again, I can't see where this should cause any real problems.

Adding no small force to this argument, we could also note that what I am
proposing (taking cultural transmission as a given) is what ALL
anthropologists, of whatever theoretical persuasion, do all the time
anyway. Hence, it would be MOST unfair to criticise the Darwinist for
not explaining something that everybody else can't explain either. :{)

Here I note, again, we have a SHARED theoretical construct in the Culture
Concept, and if the lack of an explanation for enculturation is to be
advanced as a telling argument against a Darwinian approach, it is EQUALLY
telling against ALL other theoretical approaches!

The centrality of the Culture Concept in Cultural Selectionism must be
appreciated, or serious confusions will result. I think people are at
least becoming aware of this danger, for as Jeremy noted,

JO> My posting obviously (and consciously, I think) pushed the idea of parallels
JO> between biological and cultural evolution too far, but in the hope that the
JO> inconsistencies thus revealed would help us view both sides in a new light.

and, as an example, he suggested:
JO> to push the biological/cultural analogy too far just one last time,
JO> the "internal parasitic classes" Dave mentions could surely be
JO> selfish memes?

This tread was picked up also by Rob who, taking more of a
biological slant, wondered
RQ> Specifically, how would a notion of selection within "symbolic"
RQ> environments help us in understanding power relationships?
RQ> Wouldn't the nature of power relationships suggest that the
RQ> usage of cultural beliefs and practices be tied to strategies
RQ> of individual fitness (genetic fitness) maximization?

A point of view echoed (same day, different thread) by Elisabeth Fraser,
who can serve to point our attention to THE important distinction between
CULTURAL SELECTION and GENETIC by suggesting (in this case re: potential
selective processes acting upon "intelligence"):

EF> What if it's not identified as "intelligence", which is a modern
EF> notion and hence of not very much evolutionary significance,
EF> but rather as "magic power"? People like this were
EF> sometimes able to scare their neighbours into giving them
EF> their own food and even their own wives or daughters
EF> Under these conditions the bright chap would be
EF> treated with covert hostility and suspicion, but might
EF> still be able to spread his [sic] genes quite nicely, thank-you.

I set aside, for the moment, questions of the "selfish meme," promising to
return to it later (although the way this is dragging on, probably in a
different post). For now, I bring up the second two comments, not to
criticise, or even evaluate their comments, but to point out that both Rob
and Elisabeth are proposing Sociobiological and NOT Cultural Selectionist

I fear that many of those who criticise Darwinian approaches to Cultural
Process do so by conflating, improperly I would add, Sociobiology and
Cultural Selectionism. This confusion need not occur as long as we keep
in mind the fundamental difference between the two -- the nature of the
Inheritance System to which feedback is assume to be occurring.

Under the Sociobiological Model, feedback from selection is directed
towards the GENETIC coding system. Hence, cultural and biological
evolution are one and the same in that the EFFECT of selection in each

Cultural Selectionism TOTALLY REPUDIATES the Sociobiological assumption.
Instead, it holds that the focus of selection for cultural behavior is
100% INDEPENDENT of the genetic coding system; that any amount of cultural
change can occur without making ANY DIFFERENCE IN THE GENETICS OF THE
POPULATIONS INVOLVED (again, setting aside in this context the matter of
the evolution of the CAPACITY for culture in early humans, but I believe
this should cause no confusion). Hence, to return to an earlier
statement, the focus of cutural selectionist explanation is CULTURE.

Allen Zagarell, hit directly on the mark, therefore, when he raised his
several points (again in the context of a different thread, but one of the
same colour and hue as the matters being discussed here):

Raising issues which MUST be considered by any developing science of
cultural process, he criticised some discussions as follows:

AZ> There is not one mention of
AZ> class, gender, ethnicity, social conflict, lineages or any of the
AZ> social institutions that make up living societies (as opposed to
AZ> other living things.) The dynamic of human societies, the effects
AZ> of new technologies on social structures, the relative strength of
AZ> various classes in the competetion for resources (which can have
AZ> dramatic effects on the historical pathways taken), the peculiar
AZ> relationship of the domestic realm to other social realms among a
AZ> thousand other potential avenues of investigation become little more
AZ> than questions of "adaptiveness".

I could not agree with this more (though I tend to be wary of 'folk'
constructs such as "class, gender, ethnicity", though at the same time I
also am quite willing to use them, lacking as we do, at least for
now, better, and more natural, terms).

AZ> The adaptiveness argument is an argument which cannot be
AZ> contradicted. The very fact one society survives replacing another,
AZ> or a society changes from one mode of production to another is
AZ> largely interpreted as adaptive using this logic.

Here I would tend to differ, in emphasis rather than in substance (I
think), but this relates more to the earlier stuff I posted on the
difference between fitness (observable/observed change) and adaptation
(one possible explanation for such change), stressing the fact that
fitness is empirical (again, at least in theory), while adaptation is
ALWAYS one (of many possible) hypotheses which may be advanced to explain
the observed change in fitness (in cultural cases, generally described as
changes in frequency of traits, though, in other cases, of populations
bearing different trait sets).

AZ> The question is
AZ> not asked (or at least not in Giacobbe's contribution) adaptive for
AZ> whom, for which social groups
AZ> What are
AZ> the dynamics of their social setting which bring them to make
AZ> those choices? What social groups are involved in those decisions?
AZ> Which groupings are the "losers".

In this, at least in terms of causation from natural law, I think it fair
to say that, **at least this far**, cultural selectionists have indeed
ignored these matters (very much to the detriment of the development of
our science, I would add). But, on the other hand, I have yet to see
CAUSAL (as opposed to rhetorical) discussion of these matters being held

AZ> or why some societies move in
AZ> directions that appear to be environmentally mal-adapted.

On this one, however, I can point to my own work on agricultural origins
in which a decoupled discussion of fitness and adaptation DOES lead to a
discussion of this very question, I believe providing some insight into
how such problems may arise. WHile the explanation is not conclusive in
any sense, at least it led to some counter-intutitive predictions which
are borne out in the archaeological record. One can have "optimally
mal-adaptive" solutions.

AZ> The question is what are the forces underlying social change.

INDEED! To go further, what is the NATURE of the KINDS of forces that
might underlie them? Here, I think that most of anthropology has been
held back by accepting, covertly I believe, notions of 'force' and
'object' as drawn from the physical sciences. This is where the
Darwinian approach, using as it does a radically different notion of
causation (so different that folks like Popper couldn't even recognise it
as Science!), offers great hope in starting to approach these kinds of

who better call it a day before this starts getting REALLY long!