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Darwin-L Message Log 1:226 (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.


<1:226>From TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU  Mon Sep 27 21:35:23 1993

Date: Mon, 27 Sep 1993 19:19:38 -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

On Mon, 27 Sep 1993 17:30:18 -0500 Iain Davidson said:
>The history stuff seems fine, but am I getting it wrong?  The fact that
>there was significant development of theory of evolution before a complete
>(?) understanding of the mechanisms of heredity suggests strongly that it
>is very valuable to develop theory of cultural selection (I think Rindos is
>basically right here)  even if we cannot yet specify precisely how the
>inheritance of cultural phenomena works.  Once we have a convincing theory
>of cultural selection then we can begin looking at how the mechanisms may
>be working.  But an awful lot of people are nto getting that close to it,
>partly because they do not understand the importance of variation and
>selection in cultural matters.

But Darwin's theory did not appear full blown in an intellectual vaccum;
he was addressing a series of well-established and well-understood problems.
In particular: all biologists recognized homologies among similar kinds
of organism; they recognized that kinds of organisms fall into groups
defined by greater and lesser similarity; they recognized (or thought
they did) that there were similarities in developmental stage; they knew
that there were animals buried in the ground that no one had ever seen alive;
they knew that different regions of the world contained very different
organisms, but that the inhabitants of different places were, in some
sense, analogous.  Moreover, naturalists were typically very impressed by
the way in which organisms were adapted to the places and ways in which
they lived.

So Darwin's hypothesis of descent-with-modification, not to mention his natural
selection model, were aimed at specific problems in natural history. What
well defined problem is "cultural evolution" (with no defined variables)
supposed to explain? Are the changes in government which have taken place
in Eastern Europe in the last 5 years cultural evolution? In the last
200 years? In the last 2000 years? In the last 20,000? Or: when I was
a kid, baseball was more popular than football. Now, it's the other
way around. Is this cultural evolution?

In short, we have a non-theory which people want to use to explain an
unspecified phenomenon.  I think we should get a good description of
the phenomenon, and maybe some tentative explanations of it, and then
see whether or not there are homologies between the explanations of
biological evolution and the explanations of cultural change. And even,
possibly, between biological evolution and cultural change.

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

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