Darwin-L Message Log 1:227 (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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<1:227>From PGRIFFITHS@gandalf.otago.ac.nz  Tue Sep 28 00:05:30 1993

To: Darwin-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: PGriffiths@gandalf.otago.ac.nz
Organization: University of Otago
Date: 28 Sep 1993 17:03:31GMT+1200
Subject: Cultural evolution and heritability


According To DST (Oyama 1985, Grey 1992) species-typical characteristics are
to be explained as the result of the interaction of species-typical
developmental resources in a self-organising process.  The genes are just
another material resource that feeds into this process, they do not have a
priveleged 'informational' role.

In DST evolution is the differentiation of lineages of developmental systems
due to the incorporation of different developmental resources. Thus
evolution may occur because of changes in inherited 'environmental'
features. A good example is habitat imprinting, which can be the first step
in a speciation process.

A speech community, culture, etc are, if suitably broadly classified,
developmental resources for species-typical human development.  Just as
proper social interaction in certain critical periods is required for normal
sexuality and social skills in rehesus monkeys, so language is required for
normal human psychology.  A group of socially functional conspecifics is a
developmental resource for the monkeys, and a speech community is a
developmental resource for humans.  The same will be true of many other
aspects of human culture.  Culture is generated by previous generations and
provided for offspring in the same way as maternal cytoplasm, parental care
and so forth.

The developmental systems view emphasises the currently marginalised fact
that that humans have had a culture since before they were human. Culture
has a history of development and differentiation amongst lineages as old as
that of many other elements in the developmental system.  Many
species-typical features of human psychology may depend critically on stably
replicated features of human culture.  Many psychological features which are
specific to certain human cultures may nevertheless have evolutionary
explanations, since this variation may reflect differentiation amongst
lineages of developmental systems.  An obvious research programme within
developmental systems theory is an attempt to locate critical developmental
resources in human culture(s), and to study their influence on development,
and how they themselves are replicated.

Two objections are commonly urged to the idea that cultural evolution can be
accommodated in the same theoretical framework as the evolution of
traditional biological traits.  First, it is often remarked that culture
changes much more rapidly that any biological trait.  But how rapidly
something changes depends on how it is taxonomised.  The forms of
relationship between the sexes in European society has changed greatly in
the last thousand years, but it has remained fundamentally patriarchal.
Developmental systems theory suggests an attempt to locate the fundamental
developmental resources that account for the stability of this feature.
These will be classified in such a way as to allow them to be identified
across the whole range of such societies.

The second common objection to evolutionary approaches to culture is that
cultural traits are transmitted horizontally, rather than than vertically,
and that this gives cultural evolution a fundamentally different structure
from biological evolution, in which traits are transmitted vertically.  In
such a process, it is suggested, the idea of lineages as the fundamental
units of evolution is inappropriate.  One response to problems of this kind
would be to enlarge the size of the lineage groups studied so as to reduce
the incidence of such transmission between the units of study  .  But this
may not be necessary, as the traditional contrast between cultural and
biological is overdrawn on both sides.  On the biological side, plant
evolution and bacterial evolution involves a good deal of horizontal
transmission (via hybridisation and plasmid exchange).  This calls for some
revision of traditional methods in studying bacterial evolution, but not
enough to render them unrecognisable .  On the cultural side, it is
plausible that transmission is 'vertical' to a remarkable extent.  Languages
exchange items of vocabulary, but do not merge wholesale.  This form of
horizontal transmission is closely akin to plasmid exchange.  Some studies
have claimed a substantial parallelism between trees for language and trees
for human lineages (Cavalli-Sforza et al 1988, Penny et al 1993). Dr Johnson
spoke truer than he knew when he said that 'languages are the pedigrees of


R.D Gray, "Death of the Gene: Developmental Systems Strike Back," in P.E
Griffiths, ed, Trees of Life: Essays in Philosophy of Biology (Kluwer:
Dordrecht, 1992): 165-209

S Oyama The Ontogeny of Information, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge,

L.L Cavalli-Sforza et al, "Reconstruction of Human Evolution: Bringing
Together Genetic, Archeological and Linguistic Data" , Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, LXXXV (1988): 6002-6.

D Penny, E.E. Watson, & M.A. Steel, "Trees from languages and genes are very
similar",  Systematic Biology, XLII (1993):  in press.

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