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Darwin-L Message Log 1:203 (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.


<1:203>From TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU  Fri Sep 24 10:50:18 1993

Date: Fri, 24 Sep 1993 08:33:36 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Elihu M. Gerson" <TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

I agree with most of what Holsinger says about cultural transmission,
but I have reservations about the idea that there will be _some_
commonality among cultural and biological transmission processes.

To begin with, Darwin considered only biological transmission. The fact
that his hypothesized mechanism turned out to be wrong is irrelevant. All
the mechanisms he considered (including "Lamarckian" use-and-disuse, will,
etc) are biological mechanisms, not cultural ones. His theory required
that the resemblances between parents and progeny be *heritable* in a
biological sense of heritability.

Clearly, sometimes there are resemblances between cultural and biological
transmission. Sometimes these resemblances look "Darwinian"-- Donald
Campbell's phrase is "random variation and selective retention", and lots
of processes (biological and cultural) work like this. But that's a purely
formal resemblance. It's a good thing to recognize it; it's the
starting point for any number of interesting research projects; but it
doesn't explain anything at all. In order to have explanations, we *also*
need the mechanics-- i.e., the material and efficient causes. And we
see no slightest ghost of a resemblance between the material and efficient
causes of phenotypic characters (in the biologists' sense) on the one hand,
and the material and efficient causes of cultural or
organizational features (in the anthropologists'/sociologists' sense) on the
other hand.

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

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