Cultural evolution is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, even though, unfortunately, we still struggle to come up with a coherent — and testable — theory of how culture evolves. These days the word “evolution” is used in direct analogy with biological evolution, and particularly Darwinian processes, but it is far from clear if, and to what extent, cultural evolution is really analogous to its biological counterpart.
In a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine Online I take on this topic by way of analyzing a carefully written paper by Alberto Acerbi and Alex Mesoudi, published in Biology and Philosophy, which attempts to clear the air from a lot of confusion in the field of Darwinian cultural evolution.
Acerbi and Mesoudi make clear what the problem is: “Cultural evolution studies are characterized by the notion that culture evolves according to broadly Darwinian principles. Yet how far the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution should be pushed is open to debate.” The bulk of their paper is an attempt to contribute to that debate by clearing up a lot of confusion that has arisen in the field when people talk about specific mechanisms of cultural evolution, and in particular the difference between cultural selection and cultural “attraction.”
Cultural selection is “a process of selection between different variants (e.g. beliefs, ideas or artefacts) or models (referring to people from whom one can copy).” The alternative is a situation in which “the permanence of some cultural traits occurs not due to high fidelity cultural transmission but instead due to the existence of stable ‘cultural attractors.’”
One of the issues I discuss in my commentary is that of what, exactly, counts as “Darwinian” evolution. “Darwinian” is a specific modifier of “evolution,” so we cannot simply equate Darwinism with evolution. Evolution, in the broadest sense possible, simply means change over time. As in the universe has changed since the Big Bang. But that is not a theory of mechanisms, it’s a neutral description. Life also evolved in that general sense of the term, but if that were all that Darwin said we wouldn’t have a science of evolutionary biology.
I summarize and discuss Richard Lewontin’s famous formal definition of Darwinism, and find that the concept has difficulties being applied to culture because we so far lack a crucial component of biological evolutionary theory: some sort of functional ecology of cultural traits, something that allows us to predict the “fitness” of a trait independently of the empirical observation of whether the trait does or does not thrive in a population. Without this independent assessment of fitness, evolutionary theory reduces to a tautology: it predicts that the fittest will be the one who survive, and defines the fittest as the one who have, in fact, survived.
Ultimately, it is still very much an open question whether we can develop a coherent Darwinian theory of cultural evolution, or whether it may be better to abandon the analogy with biological evolution and recognize that culture is a significantly different enough beast to deserve its own theory and explanatory framework. Of course, cultural evolution is still tied to biological evolution, for the simple reason that we are both cultural and biological creatures. But we may have a long way to go before untangling the two and arriving at a satisfactory explanation of how precisely they are related to each other.
P.S.: one of the authors of the article I commented on, Alberto Acerbi, did a nice and constructive commentary of my TPM essay, here.