Darwin-L Message Log 1:176 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<1:176>From John_Wilkins@udev.monash.edu.au  Sun Sep 19 22:30:14 1993

Date: Fri, 17 Sep 1993 11:07:40 +0000
From: John Wilkins <John_Wilkins@udev.monash.edu.au>
Subject: Culture, evolution and Lamarck
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Culture, evolution and Lamarck (LONG)
On 14 Sept, Morris Simon <msimon7@ua1ix.ua.edu> replied to something I wrote:
> Two issues concern me:
> 1. How much is cultural evolution REALLY affected by the so-called
> intentionality of social agents? Does this really introduce a lamarckian
> element (I think not)

The phrasing of your question suggests to me that you regard "cultural
evolution" as a "given" process. The monolithic view of social darwinism
is now a remote 'racial' memory, having been replaced by its very distant
decendants, "universal" and "multilinear" evolutionism. Both are oriented
toward the use of energy in food production, and both are mainly applicable
to cultural systems which no longer exist. In my view, there are certainly
no "Lamarckian" influences underlying more recent theories of cultural

> 2. What are the close analogies and the disanalogies between cultural and
> biological evolution (Gould, eg, thinks that the term "evolution" ought to be
> restricted to biology -- I think because he thinks cultural change is a
> directed and staged process).

I share the thought you attribute to Gould. I seldom find theories of cultural
evolution to be very useful, either to explain well-documented cases of
culture change or to analyze ongoing change processes as they occur in
modern cultures. The "multilinear" model of Julian Steward, with its central
concept of "cultural ecology," is more interesting to me than the energy-based
constructs of the "universalists" after Leslie White, but neither of these
modern cultural evolution theories share essential analogies with biolgical
evolution to a degree which justifies labelling them as "evolutionary."

While Anax wrote:
 While the mechanism of Lamarck was the inheritance of aquired
 characteristics (and I admit my example on dog breeding was a poor
 choice), the overall point that Lamarck tried to make was that
 'lower' forms of life arose from inanimate matter and progressed
 towards a level of greater complexity and perfection; that is, that
 all things had an inherent drive towards greater complexity.
 For lamarck, the environment operated as the guiding force, directing
 the increase in complexity towards some end that would create the
 'perfect' organism.  While this sounds logical, its a bit different
 from natural selection in which the environment just removes those
 forms which don't work, allowing a number of possible solutions to
 and environmental 'problem'.

   Thinking over your message and previos ones, I find it hard
 to see how society and culture could be modelled in terms of evolution
 and natural selection.  While society does change, and it would be
 interesting to be able to predict the changes, I don't think
 evolution would be quite the right word for it.  Half the discussion
 on this list seems to deal in one sense or another with clarifying
 the definition of the term evolution, as quite a number of people have
 been using it in  a sloppy sense. Maybe Gould was right - evolution
 should be restricted to the life sciences and another term sought for
 the mechanisms that guide human culture.

I would like to take this up in a bit of detail.

Yes, I do take cultural evolution to be a given. That is -- I consider the
changes that occur in certain circumstances to be purely darwinian evolutionary
processes ["darwinian" means here generalised processes of the sort that in
biology are Darwinian evolutionary processes; typically, hereditary variation
that is random with respect to economic selection pressures]. The usual
disanalogies presented to cultural evolution are that it is intentional (and
therefore neo-lamarckian), that not all change is evolutionary, that history is
progressive or staged, and that much of culture is inadaptive (the persistence
of obviously wrong cosmologies, etc).

In response to this, I would answer that all the above objections have been
made to biological Darwinism (the neo-Lamarckists, pre-Synthetic geneticists,
romantic philosophers such as Shaw or Koestler, and the recent debates on
optimality, in order), and that no evidence has come to my attention to
establish without question that evolutionary theories in a sense that Gould
would be happy with cannot be generalised and applied to culture.

There are going to be strong and weak selective processes. A number of cultural
institutions will survive and even change simply because they have no adaptive
significance. The interesting cases will be those institutions that, like
science, have variations that are strongly selected in terms of differential
resource acquisition as well as having strong transmission of traits. The
gene-equivalents I call 'transmits' following Toulmin, rather than 'memes'
following Dawkins, since I do not wish to commit myself to a units-of-selection
debate in culture.

Culture is going to be at least as complex if not several orders of magnitude
greater than biology, since it is at least supervenient upon biological
processes. In my view, it is an emergent level on biology, and has several
levels within its domain.

Why cannot such strong processes be modelled darwinianly? Economics has obvious
evolutionary/ecological parallels, and is viewed anything but lamarkian by an
increasing number of economists (the "rational-man" theory seems to have had
its day, although even here I would argue that the parallel is with
game-theoretic analyses of genetic interest -- more a useful calculative
fiction than an echt account of how entities "choose" to gamble).

The real difficulty in modelling cultural evolution is to (a) determine what
counts as a 'transmit' (Dawkins instances a snatch of a tune or a form of
lyrics; Hull, a theory or professional citation; Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman use
economic examples and linguistic transformations, and so forth), and (b) to
establish what the selective advantages are -- ie, what the economic resources
the acquisition of which affect differential transmission are. I do not see why
we need to posit simple unary explanations for the entire range of cultural
process -- an example from science need not work in linguistics. If we can
model a restricted domain darwinianly, and rid ourselves of the myth of
rational change (where it is a myth), that is in itself useful.

Incidentally, there are three senses of Lamarckism -- the inheritance of
acquired characteristics (the usual sense applicable to cultural evolutionary
theories, which Darwin shared and was not invented by Lamarck); progressivist
perfectionism and/or a scale of being from lower to higher forms; and the view
that striving affects the evolutionary process in the direction striven. All
three senses are applied in criticism of cultural evolution models.

It is clear to me, at any rate, that history is *not* a series of predetermined
developmental stages, nor is it in the long term progressive. Societies and
cultures, schools and institutions, all wax and wane according to how well they
do compared with their competitors. They are populational entities, with
transmitted structures. There are transformation rules between the
developmental and economic spaces (to adapt a model of Lewontin's) in culture
as in biology.

So, why not?

John Wilkins, Monash University, Australia

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