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Darwin-L Message Log 2:4 (October 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.


<2:4>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Fri Oct  1 08:48:50 1993

Date: Fri, 1 Oct 1993 08:48:50 -0500
From: "JOHN LANGDON"  <LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU>
To: ARKEO4@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU, darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Cultural change and historical ("Darwinian") explanations

In message <931001101636.26606561@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU>  writes:

> Consider two demes:  one deme is "well adapated" to the local environment.
> That is, it utilised available resouces efficiently.  In ecological terms,
> it is maximizing K.  The other deme is "poorly adapated;" it has behaviours
> which do NOT maximize resources in the most efficient manner.  Again, in
> ecological terms, it is a K-minimising strategy.
>
> Now, we must consider the two strategies in terms of the selective
> consequences in the envirnment we have at hand -- an empty continent. A
> moment's reflection will show that the K-minimising strategy has a much
> higher probability of being the colonising deme (in fact, its selective
> advantage at any moment in time is the square of the differences in r, the
> inherent rate of increase associated with each deme). This analysis leads
> to series of predictions regarding the archaeological record, many of which
> are testable given current techniques (but this is not particularly
> relevant to the point being made here).
>
> It is important to recognise that in the approach I take to the problem of
> pristine colonisation, I am assuming that I may speak in a coherent manner
> about something called "cultural demes:" that these various demes represent
> HERITABLE traditions dictating the way people behave (in this case in terms
> of subsistence strategy).  The differences in behaviour associated with
> these heritable traditions lead to different consequences for the members
> of the groups (in this case a different probablity of being the deme which
> first colonises the continent).  Hence the pattern in the archaeological
> record is to be understood in terms of SELECTIVE DIFFERENCES between the
> traditions; differences which have CONSEQUENCES in space and time.
> Hereditability is prerequisite to the kind of logic invoked.  And selection
> is the ONLY "first principle" involved.  I must stress that without
> invoking these two, joined, ideas my argument on the nature of pristine
> colonisation simply could not exist.
>
> Is the kind of cultural selection I invoke in this case really an "argument
> from analogy"?  Is the result merely "description?" I honestly think not.

Interesting example. To defend (or perhaps clarify) my previous assertion--
since I'm not yet willing to back off-- let me try to analyze this argument.
Since you are not talking about genes you are not talking about literal
Darwinian natural selection; thus cultural selection is set up to be analogous
to natural selection. I accept that. If you stopped here, you have described a
process by comparison with natural selection but not explained it.

However, there are several essential properties of organism which you have
asssumed to be true for the demes: Most importantly, you assume a key trait is
transmitted to the next generation robustly, i.e. with a small chance for real
change; in biological terms, "offspring resemble their parents." This trait in
your argument is the relative ability to utilize resources. The offspring of
the r-type deme are similarly r-type and the offspring of the K-type deme are
similarly K-type. To assume otherwise prevents us from making any projections
at all. Thus you have built the inference into your theory of cultural
selection. and provided a theoretical foundation for it (e.g. robust
transmission is a definitive property of culture). You have moved from analogy
and description to an explanatory model ready to stand on its own. Even if
natural selection were to be discarded by biologists, a theoretically based
model of cultural selection may still stand.

Does this make any sense?

The point I've tried to make is that borrowing a process from discipline A to
describe observations in discipline B is a reasonable first step, but there is
explanation only when the process has a theoretical basis within discipline B.

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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