Evolutionary theory

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 30 Sep 1995 09:11:35 +0900

In a response to John Giacobbe, Matt Tomaso writes

In culture, selection is made mainly by groups of
participants, not some imagined universal equation,
the superorganic, culture (the singular noun) or local
cultural ecology. How, may I ask, can you boil down
the culture-cides of the American colonial period to
selection? Before you answer, consider whether there
really is any difference in saying that human agency
determines the course of history or saying that
cultural selection does. I don't see a real empirical
difference, rather, I see a methodological one. The
former statement ('human agency > history) allows
you to go beyond reductionism by allowing you to
seek out the complex webs of causality (ie - the
decision-makers <agents, identity>, their influences
<ideology, gender>, their mistakes and successes
<behavior, practice, consciousness>, etc), while the
latter tends to conflate cause and effect (a problem in
any evolutionary paradigm), assumes some sort of
collective unconscious (eg the superorganic or
Kluckhohn's 'configurations'), and finally, brackets off
the possibility of individual variation within the social
body as a causal mechanism.

First, let me say that I am in total agreement with
Matt, as far as he goes. I would add to what he says
the observation that it may be useful to pay attention
to the paradigm for doing science which structures the
view that Matt is attacking, i.e.,

(1) the scientist ISOLATES a problem and then
(2) develops a solution that may appear to work ALL
(3) It is part of this process that whatever is left out in
isolating the problem is supposed, for the moment, to
be inconsequential for the solution.

Recent developments in the study of complex adaptive
systems (see Gell-Man, The Quark and the Jaguar, for a
lucid summary) show that what may appear, at first,
to be only minor differences in initial conditions can
lead to dramatically different outcomes.

This in itself is not too surprising. Have we not read in
Shakespeare Richard III's lament on how the want of a
nail leads to the loss of horse which leads to the loss of
a kingdom? What is striking is how often we fail to
attend to how important these effects can be in even
simple physical systems. Consider the difference that
one degree of temperature makes if water is at 0
degree C vs 1 degree C. Or better yet 99 degrees C vs
100 degrees C when the water is contained in a tea
kettle with no hole for steam to escape. Or, to cite
another example, how we learn physics by calculating
the effects of gravity on point masses, leaving out of
our calculations the "negligible" effects of atmospheric
friction--which is to say the difference between a
feather, a cannonball, and a Boeing 747, anywhere
except in a vacuum.

We should, perhaps, give up our physics envy and
learn some serious engineering. :-)