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Darwin-L Message Log 1:228 (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.


<1:228>From TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU  Tue Sep 28 07:43:26 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1993 05:07:53 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Elihu M. Gerson" <TREMONT%UCSFVM.BITNET@KUHUB.CC.UKANS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Cultural evolution and heritability
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

I'm very sympathetic to the developmental approach of Oyama and others,
but I still have the same problems and questions about cultural
evolution, which the developmental approach urged by
PGriffiths@gandalf.otago.ac.nz does not address. Referring to
whatever-they-are aspects of culture as "developmental resources"
doesn't tell us what they are, or they they are related, or how
they constrain one another.  And until we know something about that,
then we can't say much about how they function in socialization,
evolution of any kind, or any other process.

I also think it would be a good idea to keep in mind that there is
more to culture (or society, or institutions) than the socialization of
children.

Here's an example of what I mean. Americans and English both use
the same basic set of tools to eat with: knife, fork, spoon, etc. The
common historical root is obvious. Both groups hold the fork in one hand,
pinning food with it while they use the knife in the other hand to cut
the food. The English then raise the fork to their mouths. Americans,
by contrast, put down their knives and switch the fork from one hand
to the other before raising it to their mouths.

This is a clear cultural difference. Both ways clearly have a common
historical ancestor, and I suspect it wouldn't be all that difficult
to trace the connections in a fairly detailed way-- perhaps it's
already been done. Is this the sort of thing we're talking about when
we say "Cultural evolution?"

 I think of these ways-of-eating as institutions
or conventions, and I see them as the basic units we are concerned
with as social scientists. They are NOT formally analogous to genes,
individual organisms, or phenotypic characters, because they act
very differently in any plausible model of change/evolution one cares
to consider. They are useful as units because they can (conceptually)
be combined to form larger-scale groupings in many different ways. It is
these combinations, their changes and relationships, which social
science is concerned with.

Notice that, in this view of things, if a race of manufactured
sufficiently smart robots suddenly appeared, they could have a
society/culture too, even though they didn't have any biological
evolutionary history at all. Notice too, that individual
people qua individuals do not appear in this picture; i.e.,
social science does not deal with individual people and their properties.

Obviously, other social scientists will conceptualize the phenomenon
in very different ways, and these might not overlap with the one I
sketched above at all. So specifying what is the "culture" or
institutions or whatever that we're looking at is pretty important.

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

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