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Darwin-L Message Log 1:198 (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.


<1:198>From TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU  Thu Sep 23 17:39:49 1993

Date: Thu, 23 Sep 1993 13:38:20 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Elihu M. Gerson" <TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Heritability and cultural evolution
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Thu, 23 Sep 1993 09:59:32 -0500 Richard M. Burian said:
>...At least one standard account of heri-
>tability makes a trait heritable if there is higher [or, for that matter,
>different] correlation between parent and offsping than between random
>members of the parental and offspring generations.

This way of looking at it puts us squarely in the middle of the ancient
correlation-is-not-causaton discussion. Most usages of "heritability" (and
similar terms that I've seen) assume or describe some causal connections
between the characteristics of one generation and those of another, not just
association. Correlations don't tell us anything about the cause of
resemblances between parents and children. Thus, for example, if many
people come down with an illness simultaneously, it may be impossible
to determine from correlational data if the cause is contagion, heritable
susceptibility, exposure to an irritant in the water supply,
some combination of these, or something else altogether.

> All of this removes one potential obstacle to theories of cultural
>evolution.  But as Holsinger points out, without a serious account of
>mechanism of (cultural) evolutionary change, we don't really have such
>a theory.

True-- and we don't have any plausible theories of cultural evolution.

Moreover, I think using the term "heritability" to refer to both biological
and cultural transmission runs the risk of confusing
processes which are very different in important respects. So I  think we
need a different term for the more general and abstract process which
includes heritability on the one hand (i.e., biological transmission) and
heritage or tradition (i.e., cultural transmission) on the other. And it
will also be well to keep in mind that there are clearly many subkinds
of each kind of transmission.

I am particularly concerned to avoid arguments like: the contents of the second
draft of my manuscript looks like the first draft of my manuscript,
THEREFORE, keyboards (or maybe word processors) are what shapes the
contents of manuscripts. Arguments of this form, in which lower-level
(often genetic, often psychological) processes are awarded causal
efficacy, and higher level (i.e., organizational, political) processes are
ignored, are extremly common. They can be, and often are, used to
justify the most terrible crimes, including genocide. So I think we should
be very very clear in what we say and what we mean
when we are dealing with these cross-level problems.

I also think it is a good idea to keep in mind that the analysis of
cross-level processes is very complex, and cannot be divided into a
"so much of this, so much of that" way.  Susan Oyama has done an
outstanding analysis of nature-nurture controversies from this perspective:
"The ontogeny of information", Cambridge U Press, 1985.

Elihu M. Gerson
Tremont Research Institute
458 29 Street
San Francisco, CA 94131
415-285-7837  tremont@ucsfvm.ucsf.edu

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