Darwin-L Message Log 1:278 (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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<1:278>From ARKEO4@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU  Thu Sep 30 21:12:11 1993

Date: Fri, 1 Oct 1993 10:16:36 +0800 (SST)
Subject: Re: Cultural change and historical ("Darwinian") explanations
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

JOHN LANGDON writes on  30 Sep 1993

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

Is it? Let me attempt to add a bit of content to the assertions being
made here.

My recent research has concerned itself with an venerable problem in
Australian archaeology.  Since the 50's people have been arguing about the
nature of the original colonisation of the continent by humans.  Two basic,
opposing, positions have arisen:

 (1) that colonisation was "fast" because human culture has the ability
quickly to adapt to local conditions.  Hence, once people arrive in
Pleistocene Australia they were able quickly to occupy the various
ecological zones.

 (2) that colonisation was "slow."  Here, the usual model invokes a slow
adaptation and learning process, usually put in terms in which humans
arrive with a "coastal adaptation."  They first colonise the perimeter of
the continent and only later learn how to survive in the more interior,
desert, regions.  Hence, movement across, and colonisation of the continent
would have been a slow process.

Now it is important to realise that BOTH of these positions are totally
compatable with explanations based upon THE anthropological "first
principle," namely, that culture is an adapative mechanism for humans. Yet,
as may be seen in this case, the first principle gets us *nowhere* in
understanding the details; it tells us nothing about HOW or "WHY" we have
the pattern that might exist in the archaeological record.  In fact, it
leads to two totally contradictory predictions.  This is not particularly
surpising since the "first principle" seems capable of "explaining" just
about ANY outcome.

The approach I have taken to the problem differs from the more traditional
ones in a fundamental manner.  I assume that cultures are always varying --
that behavioural "innovations" can appear at any time or in any place.
However the CONSEQUENCES of cultural variation will differ, and these
consequences will likewise differ by time and place.

The situation I have is an "empty" continent, one in which humans are new
arrivals.  The solution I come up with (I oversimplify the argument to a
point that I HOPE is not incoherent) runs something like this:

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.


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