Darwin-L Message Log 1:268 (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.

<1:268>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Thu Sep 30 08:24:34 1993

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 08:24:34 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Cultural change and historical ("Darwinian") explanations

In message <930930083540.2660562d@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU>  writes:

> The problem boils down to a fairly simple one -- is the PATTERN seen over
> time and space in culture explainable in what most of us would understand
> as scientific terms.  Are the OBSERVABLE SPECIFIC DIFFERENCES (NOT the
> general, underlying similarities) explainable?  WHY should the SPECIFIC
> subsistence systems, kinship systems, ethical sytstems, etc etc found
> around the world have the forms they actually have?

> I treat culture AS
> IF it WERE hereditable because it is *necessary* for me to do so if I am to
> even ATTEMPT an answer to the questions which are of concern to me.

I have argued previously that natural selection cannot be literally applied to
culture; the best one can do is make analogy between the processes of culture
change and natural selection. There is nothing wrong with doing that, if it
appears to answer some of these excellent questions. But explanation by analogy
is merely description. The next step seems to me to be to devise an independent
theoretical justification within cultural anthropology for a selection-like
model. That is, culturalists must erect their own self-contained model for
change that is an explanation and not a description. Failure to do that leads
to all sorts of errors, subtle or ludicrous (depending partly on your
perspective) such as those which are rampant in sociobiological literature:

e.g. biological selectionist explanations for masturbation, neckties,
homosexuality, and toddlers waking up in the night.

The fallacy here is that these are perfectly explainable behaviors from what we
know about "first principles" of behavior and do not require specific
selectionist explanations such as a gene for neckties. These are cases where
analogy, improperly or overenthusiastically applied, breaks down.

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