Darwin-L Message Log 1:179 (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.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:179>From HOLSINGE@UCONNVM.BITNET  Mon Sep 20 12:19:25 1993

Date: Mon, 20 Sep 1993 08:36:33 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Culture, evolution and Lamarck
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

It strikes me in reading the discussion about the possibility of cultural
evolution that an important distinction is being missed, viz. the distinction
between Darwin's theory of evolution and his theory of evolution by natural

Darwin's theory of evolution consists of the assertion that all of life's
diversity can be explained as a result of descent with modification from a
a single common ancestor.  Descent with modification is the _only_ process
specified.  It includes both the branching of lineages and transformation
within lineages.  It doesn't specify anything about the mechanism that
produces the branching or the transformation.  In fact, as Ernst Mayr is fond
of pointing out, Darwin mostly ignored the problem of how branching happens,
focusing instead on the mechanics of transformation within lineages.

Darwin's theory of natural selection is one mechanism by which evolutionary
change can happen.  It is the idea that types with a superior "fitness" will
be more greatly represented in succeeding generations than those with a
lesser fitness.  It is _not_ the only mechanism of evolutionary change, nor
is it the only mechanism that Darwin proposed.  Darwin envisioned both the
inheritance of acquired characteristics and use & disuse of parts as
important sources of evolutionary change.  We now know that additional
processes, like genetic drift, can lead to evolutionary change in a population
in the absence of natural selection.

Taking this distinction as a given, I can see no reason why we can't talk
about (at least certain forms of) cultural evolution.  It may be difficult
to define the characteristics that are changing, but ask any biological
taxonomist how they define a "character" of an organism and you'll see that
the problem is not unique to culture.  Given that we can identify some
characteristics of a culture, say language practices, and given that
those characteristics change over time it seems likely to me that the
changes can be understood in the broad framework of descent with modification.
In fact, my limited understanding of linguistics suggests that this is
precisely the case, the similarity of Romance languages being due to their
common heritage in classical Latin and the resemblance of Germanic, Romance,
and other languages being due to their common heritage in Indo-European.

There are, of course, interesting ways in which cultural evolution differs
from biological evolution, e.g., greater reticulation among lineages
(especially now) and the potential for inheritance of acquired characters
(what _is_ education, after all?).  These differences, however, have to do
with the _mechanisms_ responsible for producing descent with modification.
Thus, I see cultural evolution as a historical process that will share some
of the features of biological evolution, simply because both are a process of
descent with modification, even though the mechanisms underlying biological
and cultural evolution are very different.

-- Kent

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