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Darwin-L Message Log 1:199 (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.


<1:199>From HOLSINGE@UCONNVM.BITNET  Fri Sep 24 07:44:59 1993

Date: Fri, 24 Sep 1993 08:25:42 -0500 (EST)
From: "Kent E. Holsinger" <HOLSINGE%UCONNVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Gerson makes a reasonable point in his reply to Burian.  Using the term
"heritability" to refer to both biological transmission and cultural
transmission runs a risk.  By failing to distinguish between them, on the basis
of the _very_ different mechanisms underlying them, we may unwittingly make use
of evolutionary principles that depend on biological heredity when trying to
understand cultural evolution.

It is important, however, to realize that there will be _some_ commonality
between the processes, no matter how different the mechanisms underlying the
transmission.  Darwin's theory of natural selection, for example, requires only
that offspring resemble their parents, i.e., that there is a _correlation_
between parental and offspring phenotypes.  It does _not_ require any that
any particular mode of transmission underly that correlation.  In fact, Darwin
got the mode of inheritance completely wrong.  To the extent that we can make
inferences about the characteristics of an evolutionary process from the fact
of transmission alone, there are bound to be similarities between biological
and cultural evolution.

There are two aspects of cultural transmission that seem to have no
counterpart in biological transmission (that I have been able to think of, at
least).  First, transmission isn't strictly unidirectional, from parent to
offspring, in cultural transmission.  Second, there is considerable horizontal
transmission among individuals.  Take attitudes towards homosexuality as an
example.  (I should note before proceeding that this entire discussion is
based only on my _perception_ of attitudes, not on any actual data about them.
Still, it serves to illustrate the point.)  Attitudes among college-age
students towards homosexuality seem clearly influenced by the environment in
which they were raised, i.e., by their parents (at least in part).  That's
classical vertical transmission.  However, students' attitudes are also
influenced by the attitudes and behavior of their peers.  I'm sure we all
know of cases where a student who was adamantly anti-homosexual discovers
that a friend is gay and, as a result, changes his attitude about
homsexual behavior.  (Of course, many times attitudes don't change.)  That's
an example of horizontal transmission.  Similarly, parents sometimes change
their attitudes about homosexual behavior as a result of learning that their
son or daughter is gay/lesbian/bisexual.  That's reverse vertical transmission.

One of the significant questions in my mind is whether the extent of these
alternative modes of transmission is so great that cultural and biological
evolution share few interesting properties or if their extent is limited
enough that there are significant similarities.  Another is whether there
are certain classes of cultural evolution, e.g., linguistic evolution, that
are more similar to biological evolution than others, e.g., changes in
sexual mores.

-- Kent

+--------------------------------------------------------------------+
|  Kent E. Holsinger    Internet: Holsinge@UConnVM.UConn.edu |
|  Dept. of Ecology &     BITNET: Holsinge@UConnVM     |
|  Evolutionary Biology, U-43              |
|  University of Connecticut               |
|  Storrs, CT 06269-3043               |
+--------------------------------------------------------------------+

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