Re: biocultural evolution (somewhat long)

Mr J.M. Ottevanger (J.Ottevanger@LIVERPOOL.AC.UK)
Fri, 22 Sep 1995 17:11:49 +0100

In the last mail Dave Rindos said:
> 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
> think"].
> 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,
> fer'sure!!].
> 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
> hypotheses.
> 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
> elsewhere.
> 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
> concerns.
> Dave,
> who better call it a day before this starts getting REALLY long!
> :{)