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Darwin-L Message Log 1:225 (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.


<1:225>From ARKEO4@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU  Mon Sep 27 18:59:34 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1993 8:04:14 +0800 (SST)
From: ARKEO4@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

> Date: Mon, 27 Sep 1993
> From: "Elihu M. Gerson"
>
> I was saying, that we had a good model of speciation based on Darwin's
> theory in 1904, except that it made no reference to heredity. And *for
> that reason* many biologists concerned with speciation were dissatisfied.
					  ~~~~~~~~~~~
Probably the BIGGEST problem cultural evolution has experienced has come
from losing sight of the simple fact that we are attempting to understand
the evolution of adapative variation WITHIN a species; we are NOT dealing
IN ANY SENSE with speciation (that good old "tree of life" stuff).  I think
that more nonsense in cultural evolutionary thought (sensu lato), as well
as the criticism therof, has arisen from this source than any other.

> So the fact that a reconciliation between the two camps had to wait
> upon the provision of material causes (in the form of adequate cytogenetics,
> population genetics, knowledge of isolating mechanisms, etc) only supports
> my point that models without material and efficient causes tend not to
> be successful. Also, they're not very satisfying.

Here, I am in fundamental agreement, but I think we should also recall that
transmission factors ARE being studied in great detail -- albeit in what
have traditionally been entirely seperate fields (e.g. psychology) in which
Darwnian thought has not been particularly important. On the other hand,
evolutionary thinking usually doesn't really have much effect on ANY
physiologist's or morphologist's day-to-day work.  Mayr's oft repeated
distinction between "functional/proximate" and "evolutionary/ultimate"
approaches to biology is quite relevant here.  The specific mode of coding
and transmission for cultural traits will no more "explain" cultural
evolution than hormones "explain" the existance of biological sexes.

> So, once again: it's not effective to draw analogies between biological
> and cultural evolution, unless and until we can specify wherein they
> are different in a material and efficient sense. This isn't a point about
> the particulars of either biological evolution or the history of
> evolutionary biology; it's a methodological point about drawing analogies.

Total and complete agreement here!  The important similarities between
cultural and genetic evolution lie in the HOMOLOGIES not the analogies.

Far too much of the literature on this subject (and I am quite as guilty as
the next!) has been devoted to spinning out analogies between genetic and
cultural systems for inheritance and evolution. While these analogic
similarities can be important as a hueritistic device, they often lead us
to a rather pointless search for units ("memes" and such like silliness)
which we don't even NEED to do our work.  Ditto on the search for some sort
of "physiology" or "recombination mechanism" or any of the other
genetic-based concepts, the material lack of which is then used to "prove"
the futility of cultural evolutionary theory.  We have inheritance. We have
variation.  And (sayeth me) we therefore have selection.  We have change
over time and space.  And (again, sayeth me) we therefore have evolution.
Now we just gotta put the lot together and make sense out of the DATA
already to hand.

It seems to me that cultural evolutionary theory will be successful to the
extent that it can EXPLAIN real, observable cultural phenomena.  It will
not be judged by the elegance or the "satisfaction" induced by its general
theory (whatever form such theory might eventually take).  Hence, the most
important task for the evolutionary anthroplogist is studying the data and
attempting to understand WHY we have the patterns we find in space and in
time.  Nothing too far-out in this, I assume :{)

Dave

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