The complexities of cultural evolution

cultural evolutionCultural 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.

110 thoughts on “The complexities of cultural evolution

  1. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    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.

    Well that’s a red rag to the bull! 🙂 No it doesn’t! Defining “fitness” in terms of survival and reproduction does not make evolutionary theory tautological for the simple reason that “survival of the fittest” is not part of evolutionary theory, it is a (tautological) commentary on evolutionary theory.

    Taking the Lewontin’s three principles from your article:

    “1. Different individuals in a population have different morphologies, physiologies, and behaviors.”

    That one is not made tautological if we define “fitness” in terms of survival.

    “2. Different phenotypes have different rates of survival and reproduction in different environments.”

    Nor is that one made tautological if we define “fitness” in terms of survival.

    ” 3. There is a correlation between parents and offspring in the contribution of each to future generations.”

    Nor is that one made tautological if we define “fitness” in terms of survival!

    Ergo, Darwinian evolution is not made tautological by defining “fitness” in terms of survival!

    From those three principles, natural selection (and “survival of the fittest”) are tautologically entailed. Which is fine, because the information content is in the three statements above, not in SotF.

    Indeed, the whole reason that the statement SotF is *not* a fourth principle in Lewontin’s scheme is that it is entailed by the other three. If SotF were *not* tautological, then we’d have to add it as a fourth principle!

    If you disagree with this, which one of Lewontin’s three principles do you think is made tautological by defining fitness in terms of survival?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I think Coel is exactly right here.

    The only problem with a statement being a tautology is that it doesn’t give you any new information that wasn’t already entailed from what you knew previously.

    Firstly, despite the fact that the “tautology” criticism is favoured by creationists, it certainly doesn’t mean that that the supposedly tautological statement is not true (naturally!).

    However, neither does it mean that the statement is empty or devoid of insight. Sometimes we are blind to what is entailed by what we know until someone comes along and articulates a tautology to show it. This is what “survival of the fittest” is to me — a remarkably insightful tautology derived from or to illustrate, as Coel notes, principles which are not themselves tautological.

    I think we should agree that there can never be an absolute answer to the question of whether cultural evolution is Darwinian. Clearly it is not exactly the same as the biological evolution Darwin was describing. But equally clearly it’s not completely different either. It resembles biological evolution to *some* extent, and the point of talking of cultural evolution in this way is to highlight this resemblance — to illustrate the point that culture evolves neither entirely haphazardly nor entirely in a consciously planned way.

    The key idea is that the prevalence of certain ideas can be explained (at least in part) by how well those ideas promote their own dissemination (perhaps this is clearest in the example of religions which evangelise or punish apostasy). That is a valuable true insight as far as I can see, and that makes talk of Darwinian cultural evolution meaningful and worthwhile.

    That’s not to say that our understanding of cultural evolution will ever be as rigorous or scientific as of biological evolution. There are those who think it will be, and I’m inclined to agree with you that they are mistaken, for pretty much the same reasons you give in this article and your previous writings on the subject. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nice kernel of truth to the idea all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. SocraticGadfly

    We also don’t have a “unit of transmission.” While “meme” may be a buzzword in general society , it has of course been dropped or rejected as such a unit of transmission.

    Personally, I favor dropping the Darwinian analogy.

    Beyond the issue with a unit of cultural transmission, it’s not clear exactly what would play the same “winnowing force” to induce natural selection as does the natural environment with biological evolution.

    Second, the cultural equivalent of genetic drift is surely more powerful than actual genetic drift.

    Third, other than sexual-driven preferences in things like clothing and hairstyles,there’s no equivalent to sexual selection, and what equivalent there is, obviously correlates directly to that.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. SocraticGadfly

    Meanwhile, thinking about this after finishing the first concept, there are advantages to rejecting the idea that cultural evolution must be explained by mechanisms similar to neo-Darwinian biological evolution.

    One is that we can look at how sentient individuals, or groups of them, try to be conscious drivers of changes in cultural evolution. A Darwinian-parallels system has no room for marketing, or public relations, or government public policy, or anything of that nature, for example.

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  5. brodix

    Darwinism is a map. If it doesn’t fit, go back to the territory and draw a new one.

    As a singular organism, a culture might resemble a plant, in which generations of individuals/leaves sprout from a core community. They can break apart or take root in different locations, but they don’t have that linear expression of mobile organisms, which we experience as narrative and transpose onto cultures as history. It’s more processes of expansion and consolidation, rather than the more linear concept of evolutionary history.

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  6. Coel

    An addendum. I realise that I slightly mis-spoke when I asked:

    If you disagree with this, which one of Lewontin’s three principles do you think is made tautological by defining fitness in terms of survival?

    In order for defining “fittest” in terms of survival to reduce evolutionary theory to a tautology, it would have to make all three of Lewontin’s principles a tautology, not just one of them, since if even one of Lewontin’s principles carries information content, then so does the theory overall.

    (Of course, in fact, none of the three becomes a tautology if we define “fittest” in terms of whatever best survives and reproduces.)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Massimo Post author

    Coel, DM,

    thanks for the evobio 101 lesson. I could point out that you are trying to teach me the basics of my own field of research, where I spent a quarter century publishing in the best journals. But that would be an argument from authority, so I won’t do it.

    Of course tautologies can be true. Indeed, they are true, by definition. Whether they are informative or not depends. Mathematics as a whole can be construed as a giant tautology (at the least the part of it that deals with deductively entailed conclusions), and the same goes for logic, but nobody in his right mind would argue that this thereby renders those fields useless.

    The problem here is NOT that “defining ‘fitness’ in terms of survival and reproduction,” as Coel puts it, is tautological. It isn’t, actually.

    The point is in the conjunction of these two statements:

    i) natural selection favors the survival (and reproduction) of the fittest
    ii) the fittest are those who survive (and reproduce)

    This tautology has been recognized by Lewontin himself, as well as famously by Popper. Moreover, Alberto Acerbi, one of the authors on whose article I am commenting here, has agreed that my point about lacking a functional ecological theory in the context of cultural evolution is well taken (his commentary on my essay is now linked above).

    If we accept (i) and (ii), or the way Lewontin articulates it, what we get is a statement that is true by necessity, but that doesn’t have any flesh attached to it unless we have independent means of predicting (and empirically testing) who the fittest are in any particular combination of population and environment.

    Without that ability — which (contra creationism lore) is indeed present in evolutionary biology, but not, so far, in cultural evolutionary studies — we have a logical necessity, but not an empirically verifiable theory. That is, Darwinism would be a matter of logic, not science.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. SocraticGadfly

    But, Massimo, you’re the authority in this field, so appealing to yourself in this case is NOT a logical fallacy! 🙂

    That said, with “A/B testing” on social media, do we now have a partial, and narrow as well (not to mention “WEIRD” as well) approach to some aspects of social media?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. labnut

    where I spent a quarter century publishing in the best journals.

    Precisely. It was worth stating. I am aghast at the manner in which rank amateurs lecture the experts. I might as well start pontificating about astronomy! We have already seen astronomers posing as experts in history and rewriting the findings of the foremost historians. Clearly astronomy is an all purpose discipline.

    But that would be an argument from authority, so I won’t do it.

    Please do. At least the rest of the readership will benefit from your expertise.

    When rank amateurs presume to lecture the experts you can be sure that some deep seated ideology is at stake. Now what could that ideology be?

    Interestingly enough, I have just read this excerpt, below, by Yuval Noah Harari. He is the author(and he is a real historian, not an astronomer) of Sapiens and he has this to say:

    History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts.
    Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Labnut: I agree with you that most of what passes for “cultural evolutionary theory” is simply a repackaged attempt to render history predictable, by identifying a set of historical “laws.” We should have learned long ago that this sort of endeavor is nothing but folly, but there it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    The point is in the conjunction of these two statements: i) natural selection favors the survival (and reproduction) of the fittest; ii) the fittest are those who survive (and reproduce)

    You are entirely correct that the conjunction of those two statements is tautological. That would indeed be a problem **if** they were the statement of Darwinian evolution theory.

    But they aren’t. We can see that, firstly, from Lewontin’s three principles, which encapsulate Darwinian evolution. You yourself regard Lewontin’s three principles as the “most clear, formal definition of Darwinian evolution”. None of those three correspond to your two statements above and are independent of them.

    Secondly, we can see that your two statements are not central to Darwinian theory from the fact that the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species does not contain any mention of those statements. Indeed, talk of “survival of the fittest” was later introduced by Spencer (and then recommended to Darwin by Wallace) to try to correct misunderstandings of the theory. (Sadly, this phrase has ended up just causing more confusion.)

    As above, those two statements are a commentary on the theory of evolution. But they are not a statement *of* that theory. If anything they were an attempt at putting it in layman’s terms — but going somewhat wrong in doing so.

    Your two statements, when combined, are indeed tautological, but they are not a statement of Darwinian theory! Lewontin’s statement of the theory, in his three principles, and Darwin’s statement of it in the 1st edition OofS are totally independent of the two statements above. It thus matters not one jot that the combination of (i) and (ii) is tautological.

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  12. SocraticGadfly

    Erm, Coel, I think Massimo also knows that Charles Darwin wrote a number of different editions of “The Origin of Species,” how “Darwinian” is today used to refer to the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis” and more. You can feel free to put down the shovel, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. brodix

    One thing to consider is that evolution, as change, is an effect and we tend to focus on the outcome of the process creating this effect, i.e. that which survives.

    So what is the process creating that effect, but trial and error. Which seems to me a process of expansion and consolidation. In that nature is constantly filling every gap, given she abhors a vacuum. Then other events occur and some survive and some don’t. As a popular economics website uses the tagline line from Fight Club; In the long run, everyone’s odds drop to zero.(more poetic than Keynes’ original observation.)

    Then consider actual culture and it isn’t so much a linear historical narrative, from beginning to the present point and form, but composed of various elements pushing and pulling, in which the developed narrative is one more tool. Otherwise it would just be a flatline.

    Now the two basic elements of any community are the expanding social energies, often identified as liberalism, but also much more organic efforts, which ultimately propel it forward, versus the defining civil and cultural structures and mores, that must grudgingly adapt. Usually associated with conservatism. Now too such social energy overwhelming the civil and cultural forms is anarchy, while crushing civil and cultural form is some version of totalitarianism.

    It is only when we view this in hindsight and the historians have had their say, that it coalesces into some comprehensible narrative, aka, evolutionary process.

    So evolution is how we got here and culture is the form of what is here. That would be the distinction, as I see it.

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  14. Coel

    Dear labnut,

    I am aghast at the manner in which rank amateurs lecture the experts. I might as well start pontificating about astronomy!

    I’m glad to cause you some entertainment! 🙂

    What you might be overlooking is that there are biologists with credentials equal to Massimo’s who take the line I do (I almost wrote “agree with me” there, but I of course mean that I agree with them). One can’t just accept authority if equally credentialed authorities disagree. Similarly, in the last thread I cited credentialed historians who led me to take the line I do regarding religion in the Third Reich. Similarly there are credentialed philosophers who led me to the take the line I do on Searle’s Chinese Room. Et cetera.

    There seems to be a lot of appeals to authority on this forum and the previous Scientia Salon. This is weird to me, from a physicist’s perspective, where more often one argues on the arguments. There seems to be an idea that the one who claims to have read the most books automatically wins! I’m sure there is a Latin phrase for the fallacy “I claim to have read more books therefore I am right”! 🙂

    The last thread was a very good illustration of this! It ended with the claim:

    “And as someone who had to read Mein Kampf three times in research (and parts in German), I doubt very highly you ever read that book, but gleaned your quotes from tertiary sources, probably off the internet.”

    Which was actually quite wrong on both counts. And then tried to rub the erroneous claim in by then erroneously attributing to me the attitude:

    ” ‘Well, I don’t need to read that book in order to…’ – yes, actually, you do. ”

    And then declared: “But I had to wade through some 100 or so books …”, as though that obviates having to actually produce an argument.

    Having read books and having expertise are means to an end — the end being constructing better arguments. But pointing to such things is not, in itself, an argument.

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  15. michaelfugate

    Cole, don’t you think Massimo knows this? And didn’t you before you commented the first time? The point of course is that in biology we have means to independently determine fitness a priori and not just a posteriori by who survives/reproduces.

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo wrote:

    thanks for the evobio 101 lesson. I could point out that you are trying to teach me the basics of my own field of research, where I spent a quarter century publishing in the best journals. But that would be an argument from authority, so I won’t do it.

    ————————-

    But you did just do it.

    You sneaky guy, you. =)

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thomas Jones

    Coel, there’s a point where you may be perceived as quibbling for the sake of quibbling. Please make this easier on all of us and simply indicate what you find objectionable in the final paragraph of Massimo’s post. If you agree with his viewpoint, that may suffice. If you disagree with his viewpoint as expressed in this paragraph, please state why. Otherwise, all this twaddle about what is or isn’t tautological is not helpful and suggests that you are not being earnest in engaging his central point.

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  18. Coel

    Hi michael,

    The point of course is that in biology we have means to independently determine fitness a priori and not just a posteriori by who survives/reproduces.

    Really? How? The very definition of “fitness” is in terms of survival and reproduction. E.g. “In the crudest terms, fitness involves the ability of organisms … to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they find themselves” (H. Allen Orr, Nat Rev Genet. 2009 Aug; 10(8): 531–539).

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  19. labnut

    Coel,
    One can’t just accept authority if equally credentialed authorities disagree.

    But you do!

    You accept the authority of your chosen historians and you accept the authority of your chosen biologists. You strongly, indeed, adamantly prefer their authority to the authority of people like Massimo or Ian Kershaw(one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler). You accept certain authority with such determined conviction you will indefatigably pursue your point of view until all others retire from sheer exhaustion.

    There can be no doubt that you do just accept certain, chosen authorities.

    You are caught in a fatal contradiction.

    But on what grounds do you prefer their authority. You are a complete amateur in those fields, so how do you make the judgement calls. One would think some epistemic humility would be the right attitude but I detect none of that in you.

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  20. Coel

    Hi Thomas Jones,

    Coel, there’s a point where you may be perceived as quibbling for the sake of quibbling. Please make this easier on all of us and simply indicate what you find objectionable in the final paragraph of Massimo’s post.

    I do not disagree with the final paragraph of Massimo’s post. I agree that the parallels between Darwinian biological evolution and cultural evolution are fairly limited. They are not non-existent, but they they don’t get you far. For one thing, whereas genetic reproduction is very “hi fidelity”, reproduction of cultural “memes” (for want of a better word) is vastly less so. Anyway, I didn’t say this in my earlier comments because it’s a pretty nothing and uninteresting comment.

    But, the issue I raised is not a “quibble”, it goes to the heart of the logical structure and indeed the scientific status of one of the most important theories in all of science. I happen to regard Darwinian evolution to be a hugely interesting and important topic, since it is central to just about any sensible world-view about ourselves.

    When I read the SEP entry on this (which I did earlier this afternoon), I am amazed that some philosophers still seem to think this “tautology” issue is valid and needs addressing. I really thought that biologists had settled it 40 or 50 years ago. I’m genuinely baffled by Massimo’s take on this, since he is the only biologist I’m aware of who thinks there is a problem here (admittedly my exposure to biologists is limited).

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  21. michaelfugate

    Coel, if you knew what you were talking about from firsthand experience, you wouldn’t be quoting “authorities”, now would you? Get over it, you are arguing about something you clearly don’t understand.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. labnut

    Dan-K,
    But you did just do it. You sneaky guy, you. =)

    Lovely. Or there is my favourite ‘but I’m not going to say I told you so’.

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  23. Coel

    Hi labnut,

    You accept the authority of your chosen historians and you accept the authority of your chosen biologists.

    I don’t just accept their authority, I read them and try hard to assess who is right.

    You are a complete amateur in those fields, so how do you make the judgement calls.

    That’s an interesting question, but if one takes an interest it often is possible. I note that you’re not trained in biology either, and yet you seem to have an opinion on this issue. Why take Massimo’s opinion over that of other biologists?

    Anyhow, the issue here is fairly straightforward. Massimo first quotes three statements by Lewontin, saying he regards them as the clearest and best statement of the essence of Darwinism. Then he points to a different statement, one that is not one of Lewontin’s three statements, and this statement, namely “survival of the fittest”, he suggests — entirely correctly — might be tautological. Now, why would that in any way be a problem for the theory as stated by Lewontin, of which SotF is not a part?

    …. the authority of people like Massimo or Ian Kershaw(one of the world’s leading experts on Hitler).

    So you’re re-hashing the Kershaw issue again? OK, let’s quote Kershaw on Hitler.

    “Grotesque as it seems, Hitler himself continued to be widely regarded as a God-
    fearing and deeply religious man.” (History Today, Nov 1985) and gives an example of Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber who, after meeting Hitler, “went away convinced that Hitler was deeply religious”.

    Now, consider that phrase “Grotesque as it seems”. That’s a value judgement. Kershaw is not just reporting as a historian, he is making a value judgement. Why would he consider it to be “grotesque” that Hitler was regarded as a “God-fearing man”? One can only make that value judgement from the stance that “God fearing men” can’t be bad, and that if someone is bad then they can’t be “God fearing”. Without that assumption his comment doesn’t make sense. And yet, if he does think like that, then that alone explains his suggestion that Hitler must have been faking it.

    What is the actual information content of the above? It is that people like Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, and similar others, who had actually met Hitler and talked to him, and knew Hitler better than Kershaw or you or me, went away with the impression that he was a deeply religious man.

    So, what is the evidence that he wasn’t, that he was just faking? Well, there isn’t any really. None at all, when it comes down to it. All there is is the prejudice that no God-fearing man could have been as evil as Hitler, and thus that he must have been faking. Which is another of those logical fallacies, called begging the question and no true Scotsman.

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  24. Coel

    Hi michael,

    Coel, if you knew what you were talking about from firsthand experience, you wouldn’t be quoting “authorities”, now would you? Get over it, you are arguing about something you clearly don’t understand.

    I note that you didn’t answer my question, nor have you given any rebuttal of anything I’ve said.

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  25. labnut

    Coel,
    it[Darwinian evolution] is central to just about any sensible world-view about ourselves.

    Except for the small problem that there is more to us than biological evolution.

    Did you not read Yuval Noah Harari’s words?(quoted above)

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