Darwin-L Message Log 1:190 (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.

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<1:190>From @VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU:RMBURIAN@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU  Tue Sep 21 23:34:31 1993

Date: Wed, 22 Sep 93 00:18:34 EDT
From: "Richard M. Burian" <RMBURIAN@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU>
Subject: John Langdon on heritability and cultural evolution
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

 On September 20, replying to Holsinger, John Langdon wrote that he
considered a trait to be heritable only if it involved a genetic or other
biologically determined change.  At least one standard account of heri-
tability makes a trait heritable if there is higher [or, for that matter,
different] correlation between parent and offsping than between random
members of the parental and offspring generations.  On such an account
[which IS used in quantitative genetics!], (a) a heritable trait may not
change over a long series of generations (e.g. if it remains at a selec-
tively determined optimum), and (b) there is no requirement that the
basis of the correlation be biological.  Thus consider a stable dialect
of a language.  There is a higher correlation between parent and off-
spring dialect than between random parental generation and random off-
spring generation dialect.  The trait is, on this definition, heritable.
The dialect may [indeed, probably will] change with generational time,
but that is not guaranteed by the definition of heritability.
 All of this removes one potential obstacle to theories of cultural
evolution.  But as Holsinger points out, without a serious account of
mechanism of (cultural) evolutionary change, we don't really have such
a theory.  And as Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson argue in fairly interes-
ting (first approximation) detail in _Culture and the Evolutionary
Process_ (Chicago UP, 1985), no good theory of cultural evolution is
likely unless it is a theory of the interaction of cultural and bio-
logical evolution (the latter more narrowly conceived than the former)
because of the interaction of quite different modes of inheritance.
For reasons such as these, I happen not to be a fan of any of the theo-
ries of cultural evolution at which I have glanced (I am NOT widely
read in this area), but I want to argue against such (semi)apriori
arguments blocking attempts to forge theories of cultural evolution
such as the one about heritability put forward by Langdon.
Richard Burian
Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech

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