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Darwin-L Message Log 1:229 (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.


<1:229>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Tue Sep 28 08:19:13 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1993 08:19:13 -0500
From: "JOHN LANGDON"  <LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu, RINDOS@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU
Subject: Re: Evolution Cultural Capacity

In message <930926100505.26602946@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU>  writes:
> It seems that
> one of the major concerns is whether any THING exists which can be said to
> serve as the mode of inheritance and selection for culture.  For example:
>
> I think it is pretty obvious that those of us working in this field take
> culture = inheritance system as a given.  Defense of this assumption is not
> really that difficult (visit your local anthropology department :{)  ), but
> no defense can stand against a principled assumption that heredity *must*
> equal genetics and therefore that non-genetic inheritance systems, BY
> DEFNITION, cannot evolve.

The fact that the capacity for culture has a biological basis is beyond
dispute. One can no more challenge the compatibility of human biology with
culture than one can deny a biological basis of all behavior since the brain
itself is a biological fact. However, this level of generality is not useful.
What we really want to know is (1) What aspects of human behavior/cultural
capacity have been directly selected for? and (2) Are any culturally
differentiating behaviors are among these? That is, can any specific cultural
behaviors be said to be genetically heritable and subject to selection?

In spite of much discussion on the first question, we have only vague ideas
about biologically rooted universals of culture: The capacity for language and
language acquisition is among these. Other universals, such as a tendency for
familial groupings and kin-based cooperative behavior are probably also deeply
rooted, but predate human culture. Whatever behaviors do fit into this category
have provided the adaptive phenotype that led to the selection for cultural
capacity. If we really could answer my first question, all of the protracted
discussion of what culture is on the Anthro-l line would be unnecessary.

This leaves us without any good indication of a specific cultural behavior that
is both biologically based and the product of directional selection.

> So, at least in a sense, the evolution of the genetic capacity for culture,
> was also the evolution of culture as phenotypic inheritance system which
> could be subject to selection, and hence which could evolve.

Yes, but look at what you write: "culture as phenotypic inheritance system." It
is the system which is selected for and inherited, not the content.

I repeat my earlier argument that cultural content is not heritable (using a
biological or genetic definition of heritability) and therefore is not subject
to true natural selection. We can only use an analogy to natural selection to
describe cultural evolution.

JOHN H. LANGDON      email LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU
DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY    FAX  (317) 788-3569
UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS   PHONE (317) 788-3447
INDIANAPOLIS, IN 46227

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