Darwin-L Message Log 1:242 (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.

<1:242>From PGRIFFITHS@gandalf.otago.ac.nz  Tue Sep 28 18:32:59 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: PGriffiths@gandalf.otago.ac.nz
Organization: University of Otago
Date: 29 Sep 1993 11:38:11GMT+1200
Subject: Re: Cultural evolution and heritability

Elihu Gerson (28.9.93) has reservations about developmental systems theory
because he can't quite see what cultural 'developmental resources' are meant
to be.  Here are some clarificatory remarks.

Gerson notes that "there is more to culture (or society, or institutions)
than the socialization of children".

DST terminology can give the impression that the theory is only concerned
with early ontogeny, but this is a mistake.  The developmental process is
identified with the whole life-cycle of the organism.  Any lineage-typical
character of that life-cycle is explained by the interaction of various
developmental resources.

Gerson cites the different table manners of British and Americans as
cultural traits, and suggests that they aren't formally analogous to genes,
organisms or phenotypic characters.

What they are analogous to are extended phenotypic characters like birdsong
or nests. The elements in birdsong acquired by exposure to the song of the
rest of the species are precisely a 'cultural trait' of this sort.  In birds
with the right sort of developmental system they even form local dialects in
just the same way (the interaction of cultural transmission and more
conventional inheritance of elements in birdsong comes in bewlideringly many

Gerson notes of his table manner characters "Both ways clearly have a common
historical ancestor, and I suspect it wouldn't be all that difficult
to trace the connections in a fairly detailed way-- perhaps it's
already been done. Is this the sort of thing we're talking about when
we say "Cultural evolution?"  Yes it is.

One important way to start studying cultural evolution would be to get trees
(or reticulate diagrams) for cultural characters, and then map them onto
trees/diagrams for more conventional characters. Congruence suggests that
the cultural character set may include developmental resources that help to
shape the species-typical life-cycle.  Methods like this can help us to
'bootstrap' our way into an evolutionarily meaningful set of characters for
culture. This is how I interpret attempts to map language trees onto
cladograms for humans.

Once we have a set of characters that seems to be evolving with the rest of
the developmental system we can look into the ontogenetic production of
those characters to discover what the critical cultural developmental
resources for humans actually are

One last, connected, point. A lot of the recent discussion on language
evolution has stressed the horizontal transmission problem.  Why this is any
worse for evolutionary theory of language than the degree of hybridisation
in many plant lineages?

Paul E Griffiths, Philosophy, University of Otago, New Zealand.

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