Darwin-L Message Log 1:248 (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.

<1:248>From ronald@uhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu  Wed Sep 29 00:11:53 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 93 19:15:29 HST
From: Ron Amundson <ronald@uhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Comments on Gerson

I have a couple of comments on the extended and (over?) elaborate
discussions surrounding Elihu Gerson's criticisms of
cultural/biological evolutionary comparisons.  Sorry, but I can't
supply detailed messages references -- I'm relying on recollection.

After taking an excursion in "evolutionary epistemology" myself, I've
come to have some similar doubts to Gerson's regarding the need and/or
usefulness of applying biological evolutionary modes of explanation on
cultural processes -- at least when applying them in a genuinely
contentful way (i.e. not simply defining 'evolution' as 'change' and
bustling on from there.)

First, I (like others) disagree with Gerson's earlier assertion that
natural selective explanations became interesting only after Mendelian
mechanisms became known.  In fact, that position is inconsistent
(well, not logically inconsistent, but at least dissonant) with what I
consider a much more insightful recent comment.  In the middle 19th
century, in Darwin's day, and ever since Darwin (to coin a phrase)
there have existed known patterns of distribution of biological traits
among species and larger groups which cry out for explanation.
Descent with modification is a (large) part of that explanation even
aside from natural selection, but natural selection is a strong
contributor to certain of those features also.  These features include
geographical distribution, comparative anatomy and embryology, and all
the other stuff well dercribed in Ruse's _Darwinian Revolution_.
Natural selection did not require a detailed understanding of
transmission genetics to play a strong explanatory role, though the
Modern Synthesis (including Mendel in evolutionary biology) did allow
theorists to eliminate many contenders to natural selection.

The more recent Gerson point is that cultural studies simply do not
seem to have patterns of data which cry out for explanation in the
ways that geographical distribution, comparative anatomy, etc. cry out
for explanation.  I fully agree with this point, and it is the reason
I am (now) left cold with attempts to impose Darwinian methods on
cultural subject matters.  It seems to me that in well-thought-out
scientific debates, the explananda are identified prior to cooking up
potential explananses.  That is, the problem is understood prior to
the proposal of a solution.  (The problems were already understood in
the 19th c. biology case, and the partial solutions offered by natural
selection were valuable even in the absence of Mendel.)

So, as I see it, the problem with applying Darwin-like concepts to
cultural change is not that we don't yet know what counts as (is
analogous to) "genes" and "phenotypes" and (interactors and
replicators and all that jazz).  The problem is that the only reason
people are even _looking_ for analogs to natural selection is that
natural selection (or its analog) looks like a great solution to a
problem of cultural change, but NO ONE YET KNOWS THE PROBLEM IT IS A

Some recent suggestions are geared towards finding appropriate
problems for Darwinish cultural theories to solve.  Well, ok.  But I'm
frankly skeptical about the robustness of a phenomenon which has been
discovered by someone who's only looking for something for his
favorite theory to solve.  It's a bit like buying a new wrench and
then trying to find something broken on your car which that wrench
will fix.

I certainly don't intend this as a general critique of the purposes of
DARWIN-L.  There is plenty of interest in the (generically described)
historical sciences which doesn't rely on trying to apply a Darwinish
mechanisms, like a cookie cutter, on every problem domain.  (E.g. I'd
like to learn a lot more about how early philology influenced
biological thinkers, Darwin or no Darwin.)

Ron Amundson

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