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. Mark Sloan

    Massimo, “Darwinian Evolution = variation + differential fitness + inheritance” can describe a substrate neutral process. There is no necessary specificity to biology.

    If we define Darwinian evolution as a substrate neutral process, we can find many highly productive applications including culture. But defining Darwinian evolution of non-biology only through the lens of biological evolution and its specialized mathematics is full of pitfalls and confusions just as you suggest.

    Here are some examples of productivity from understanding “Darwinian evolution” as a substrate neutral process.

    Evolved antenna design by “variation + differential fitness + inheritance”:
    “In radio communications, an evolved antenna is an antenna designed fully or substantially by an automatic computer design program that uses an evolutionary algorithm that mimics Darwinian evolution.”
    It was used to design a 2006 NASA ST5 spacecraft antenna which looks like a randomly bent paper clip:

    And “variation + differential fitness + inheritance” also defines the evolution of electronic visual cortexes for image recognition: “Here, we decouple the perception from the action part of evolutionary robotics, and present a new way to evolve logic circuits to perform image recognition on the well-known MNIST data set, which comprises 60,000 training and 10,000 testing handwritten numerals.”

    Also, concluding that Darwinian cultural evolution is not a useful concept because we lack a comprehensive mathematical theory is unjustified. Darwin and others used Darwinian evolution to reveal quite a lot about biology that was new with virtually no mathematics at all.

    Using my favorite example, behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral norms (norms whose violators are commonly thought to deserve punishment) are virtually all elements of cooperation strategies. Note that confirmation of the hypothesis is mainly by ‘best explanation’ – no purely ‘evolutionary’ mathematics required, just a little game theory.

    Also, this Darwinian perspective on what moral behavior descriptively ‘is’ reveals that the primary selection force for cultural moral norms and the biology underlying our moral sense is the same – the benefits of cooperation in groups. Without a Darwinian perspective on culture, it seems to me these insights could have forever escaped us.

    I also find the gene-cultural coevolution perspective particularly useful in understanding human morality. It directly suggests that the biology underling the puzzling self-punishing emotion “guilt” and the motivation to punish moral norm violators, even if they did not harm you, are adaptive biology in an environment in which there are cultural moral norms.

    To me, the utility of viewing cultural norms as the product of evolutionary processes is not in serious question. What is in serious question is the utility of defining “Darwinian evolution” as limited only to something like “neo-Darwinian biological evolution”, as SocraticGadfly suggests, rather than as a substrate neutral process.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. labnut

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

    And do you read any other authorities instead of just the ones who reflect your predilections?

    Moreover you propagate your chosen point of view with complete conviction and dogmatic certainty. Do you really, as a complete amateur, have the training, knowledge and insights to make these judgements calls with such conviction and certainty? Certainly, we can and should form opinions. We may even defend these opinions but then we should do so in a more tentative fashion: on the one hand this and on the other hand that. By taking a balanced, all things considered approach we demonstrate our openness to many points of view and we demonstrate we are informed as well as reasonable. Debate then becomes a pleasure and not a cockfight.


  3. michaelfugate

    Coel, in biological systems, we have an expected fitness which is just that a prediction based on a genotype and an environment and we have an observed fitness which is the actual fitness of an individual at the end of its life. These two fitnesses are not necessarily equal. An individual could have the “best” genotype and die before maturity or fail to reproduce. If you base fitness on observed fitness it is a tautology. It is only when you have the ability to predict fitness a priori that it is not.


  4. Thomas Jones


    “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.”

    But this is to express a concern that is misplaced within the context of Massimo’s PM essay in my opinion and those of others expressed here. Massimo is not, if I read him correctly, attacking or otherwise impugning “the scientific status of one of the most important theories in all of science.” He is perhaps suggesting that accepting it as a sort of de rigueur point of departure in studying cultural evolution may be problematic and in many cases result in overly simplistic accounts of how culture evolves, or devolves, as the case may be.

    Isn’t it possible that you have simply misread his article? Instead, you go into attack mode, it seems to me, when you might have asked a question or two to elicit some clarification if you felt it was needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Mark Sloan wrote:

    To me, the utility of viewing cultural norms as the product of evolutionary processes is not in serious question.


    Lol. Plenty of serious people (including me) question the utility of appeals to evolutionary explanations in trying to understand culture and especially morals, and nothing you’ve said here — at least so far — would make me think otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Coel

    Hi michael,

    and we have an observed fitness which is the actual fitness of an individual at the end of its life. … If you base fitness on observed fitness it is a tautology.

    So what you call “actual” fitness makes SotF a tautology. That seems to concede my point. The “actual” or “observed” fitness is how good a job it does of surviving and leaving descendants.

    … we have an expected fitness which is just that a prediction based on a genotype and an environment …

    In other words you are trying to model “fitness”, modelling the things that lead to an individual surviving and reproducing. And, since your model is only a model, it is often different from “actual” fitness. That doesn’t change the fact that “actual” fitness is how fitness is actually defined, and that your model is just an attempt to understand the components of fitness.

    I fully accept that a lot of interesting biology is involved in discovering the components that make up fitness but that doesn’t change the basic definition of “fitness” and doesn’t change the fact that SotF is a tautology.

    Put it this way. Suppose you model fitness. Suppose you then find that some Extra Factor that you’ve left out of that model then leads to better survival and reproduction. Would you then declare: “we’ve now falsified SotF, since we’ve now found that it is not the “fittest” that best survive, it is those with “fitness + Extra Factor””?

    Or would you, instead, think, ok, we’d best update our model of “fitness” to incorporate the Extra Factor, and thus essentially define “fitness” as “whatever it takes to make SotF tautological”?


  7. Coel

    Hi Thomas,

    Isn’t it possible that you have simply misread his article?

    No, I’m not misreading it. I have no argument with 95% of the article. I have no argument with the main theme and main argument he was making.

    I do disagree with one point he made. I thus addressed that one issue. I am entirely aware that it was not the main point of the article.


  8. michaelfugate

    If you go back to the original post by Massimo – you will actually find that the problem with “cultural evolution” is that we cannot predict a priori which elements of a culture are more fit. If we could, it might be analogous to “Darwinian” evolution, but we can’t, so it isn’t. Be able to make prediction is why it is science.


  9. Thomas Jones

    Coel: “I do disagree with one point he made.”

    And Massimo has responded upthread in his comment to you and DM. Read the final two paragraphs in his comment. If he is mistaken in his characterization of your stance, please explain how. It seems to me he has, and therefore I don’t understand your persistence in pressing your disagreement over a matter that you concede is not the “main point of the article.” This is like asked and answered.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SocraticGadfly

    Dan, right. As I noted, I just don’t see anything in culture that corresponds well with genetic drift, and, per my second comment, certainly see nothing in biological evolution that comes close to conscious attempts to change culture, and the evolution thereof.

    Mark, per your insight, to the degree that things like morality may be what I called on your site “social lubricants,” or cultural lubricants, I don’t see the need for Darwinian evolution to have been the generator of insight. You yourself noted Protagoras making that observation.

    And, “substrate neutrality” is not all that’s involved.

    Per my first paragraph, and first concepts on this page, “concept neutrality” (or lack thereof) is also involved. Unless one is a process theologian, or a pantheist, who believes that an active consciousness is regularly directing evolution, there is no concept neutrality.

    Of course, evolution with that involved isn’t Darwinism anyway.

    Do some cultural elements survive, and even grow and thrive? Yes. Do others shrink, even die? Yes.

    Are Darwinian mechanisms involved? Not likely.

    (That said, I noted that ‘cultural lubricants are PART of the development of morality. For all know, to riff on Steve Gould, some moral beliefs may well be “spandrels.”

    Also, a serious and non-trivial observation. Cultural evolution is about far more than morals.)

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thomas Jones

    Sorry, my above comment is poorly worded. Should say: “It seems to me he has addressed your point of disagreement . . . .”


  12. Massimo Post author


    I’d love to know which biologists you think disagree with my take, but before you rush to Google, I do think — as others have pointed out — that you fundamentally misunderstand my point.

    I am NOT claiming that there is any problem with the biological version of the Darwinian theory (and neither does any philosopher of biology I know — that’s the relevant epistemic community within philosophy).

    What I AM saying is that there is no problem precisely because biologists don’t just deploy a definition of fitness (which — like ALL definitions — is tautological), but they add testability to their theories by deploying functional ecological considerations, what michael refers to “a priori” considerations. (And your latest comment to him seems to indicate strongly that you don’t understand the point he’s making.)

    The problem then comes up for the application of Darwinian ideas to cultural evolution because in that field nobody so far has come up with a functional ecology of ideas (or memes, or whatever).

    Incidentally, I don’t know if you have actually read Darwin’s Origin, but it is one long functional ecological argument.

    You keep harping on the fact that fitness is defined in terms of survival and reproduction, and that that is not a problem. But nobody said it is, and certainly not I.


    the issues of expertise and trust are of course crucial in this and many other discussions. I certainly wouldn’t want people to “just trust me,” and I think Coel is right that the only option we have, unless we are ourselves experts, is to try to read intelligently and make up our own minds. What I find a bit surprising is that some people seem to entirely disregard expertise even when it comes to very basic notions. My essay isn’t about cutting edge, and therefore debatable, issues in evolutionary biology, it’s about evobio 101.


    “a substrate neutral process. There is no necessary specificity to biology”

    Agreed. For instance, it works well to describe the evolution of computer genetic algorithms. But substrate neutral doesn’t mean that it applies everywhere and at all times. One needs to make a specific case for cultural evolution, and even the authors of the paper I commented on — who do favor a partially Darwinian approach — maintain that there is a lot of conceptual confusion to be cleared.

    “an evolved antenna is an antenna designed fully or substantially by an automatic computer design program that uses an evolutionary algorithm that mimics Darwinian evolution”

    Yes, that’s a very good example. But notice that the system was purposely set up to mimic Darwinian evolution. It doesn’t imply that cultural evolution more broadly is itself a Darwinian system.

    “concluding that Darwinian cultural evolution is not a useful concept because we lack a comprehensive mathematical theory is unjustified”

    Agreed, but my issue was conceptual, not mathematical.

    “Using my favorite example, behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral norms (norms whose violators are commonly thought to deserve punishment) are virtually all elements of cooperation strategies”

    While I would agree that a general sense of morality evolved as an instinct that facilitates prosocial behavior, it is a whole different matter to see just how far one can push the evolutionary explanation when it comes to modern and decidedly complex moral behaviors. My guess is: not very far.

    “I also find the gene-cultural coevolution perspective particularly useful in understanding human morality”

    I guess I don’t. Gene-culture coevolution is a powerful framework when one actually knows something about the genes involved, as in the case of the evolution of lactose tolerance. But when it comes to complex moral behavior we simply don’t have that information.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. SocraticGadfly

    To take Mark, and my previous response to him, further referencing the issue of morals.

    Using something I mentioned an essay or two back, the Priestly Code. Specifically,the dietary prohibitions.

    None of them arguably increased in-group fitness. (Shellfish, etc., being avoided doesn’t remove a major food worry. The pork trichinosis angle on not eating pork has been shown to not be true; besides, other Semitic people had pork prohibitions, too. It appears that, before the development of Israelite religion, pork was a “taboo” animal, and not in the everyday English language usage sense, but the comparative religion sense.

    In other cases, biological evolution directly undercuts moral norms.

    A nearly universal moral norm is “not cheating on one’s spouse.” One that’s regularly violated by younger men (and younger women), and with biological good reason.

    Beyond that, the whole “freeloader’s paradox” faces this on reciprocal altruism. For non-conscious animals, detecting freeloaders is subconscious.

    But as something like the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows (it can seen as an attempt to “freeload” on someone else’s decision-making), freeloading is, for an individual, a smart evolutionary strategy, and thus consciously deployed against conscious human cultural attempts to stop it.

    Also, an “evolved antenna” has no morals, nor culture in general., per something else I missed in a previous comment. The object’s existence is interesting, but not relevant.


  14. geekborj

    I think there is even more important point of debate here. I think we need to define our understanding of the nature of the process/motion pointed to by the word “evolution” as we use it in the sciences and in philosophical discussions.

    “Evolution” and “development” are two words and they point to the same broad concept: change over time. However, the contextual meaning of evolution is substantially different from development in one point: nature or substance.

    Evolution is a substantial change resulting to a change in nature of things, while development is the expression of the potentiality to an act. Development is closer to the concept of “alteration” as motion by Aristotle (potentiality to act). Evolution is a new concept (exposition of best possible mechanism by Darwin) that things change substantially over time. There are biological evidence of biological evolution (i.e. new species can arise due only to biological/physical factors) and concept of the substance of a species has been identified as the genes (species substance) while its external expression as phenotype (species accidents). Thus, what changes in evolution are the genetic makeup of the species rather than just its mode of expression or phenotype.

    Therefore, the real challenge in applying the concept of evolution in culture are as follows:
    1. What are the corresponding “genes” of culture?
    2. Since by “culture” we mean “human culture”, it is important to debate on the true nature of Man (human being), removing the concept of norm and avoid the Strawberry Effect whenever we elucidate the science of humanity (cf.
    3. Is the change we see/sense in the human culture (in the society) a substantial change (evolution) or simply a change in accidents (development)?
    4. How precise are we that our observation (qualitative) or surveys (semi-quantitative) correctly reflect these changes?

    There are indicators that human societies only develop. The human sense of good has not changed since 2,000 or even 6,000 years ago: family, peace, justice, life, immortality, wisdom has always been the same. Of course, this is assuming that these philosophical “genes” are what makes a culture it. I believe that as long as two things have the same place-holder genes, they can be at least placed under the same taxonomical “genus” (

    Of course, I agree that culture require a complex scientific ideas that needs input from different fields and use concepts from one field applied to another to elucidate ideas. Biological evolution applied to culture (cultural evolution) needs many clarification before it should get hold of the diverging philosophy underpinning our understanding of human societies.


  15. brodix


    It would seem there is a predator/prey cycle involved, in that cooperation yields advantages which then create opportunities to be taken advantage of.

    Is survival of the fittest an illusion? Dinosaurs were around for hundreds of millions of years, which would qualify as fit. As a species, we have been around a few million, but the reason for our current success, our ability to cooperatively strategize and technological innovation, could well be our own astroid, as we overwhelm our own ecosystem. There does seem to be a cyclical nature to this process, of which our linear analysis is limited enough that it only appears straight, like the surface of the planet appears flat.

    Survival of the fittest, meet blowback.


  16. SocraticGadfly

    No, survival of the fittest is not an illusion. Whether at level of species, genus, family or higher, long periods of relative stasis are possible. There’s no “perfection,” but if a creature is nearly perfectly evolved for a nearly-stable environment, there’s no pressure on variation. In that case, genetic drift gains more prominence, as does geographic isolation to drive speciation, either due to ruggedness of geography, or breadth of spread of a species.

    You are right about how we could be shooting ourselves in the foot.

    But, just as evolution has no purpose, it also has no foresight.

    That doesn’t mean it’s non-linear. Certainly, eternal recurrences aren’t part of Darwinian evolution.

    Besides, to move to an analogy from general relativity and spacetime curvature, what if there were actual cyclicalness…. BUT … your cyclicalness is actually a negative curvature, not a positive curvature, so that evolution is “curved” but not cyclical?


  17. SocraticGadfly

    In other words, Brodix, people postuating “ilnear” versus (positive) curvature on history, sociology, culture, etc., should remember Idries Shah: “To ‘see both sides’ of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.”

    Liked by 1 person

  18. SocraticGadfly

    Finally, I don’t believe in eternal recurrences that aren’t metaphysically or religiously based. And, at the risk of further firestorms from any quarters, I side with Lou Salome that Nietzsche was more religious than he presented himself as being, and probably than he wanted to see himself as being.

    (Thomas, hat tip for those 3 a.m. pieces; they just came in handy.)

    Liked by 1 person

  19. brodix


    Stasis works pretty good for single celled organisms, but complexity seems to have both positive and negative feedback. One of which is that stasis does lead to stagnation, as well as the seeming universal tendency to over play a winning hand. The current political and financial sectors seem rife with examples of strategies being played to extremes, such that nothing is left in reserve. The many little and medium sized waves are all becoming one big wave.

    Now I do agree that always looking at both sides leads to paralysis, but there is some advantage to being slightly ahead of the curve, when the tide turns. Or way off to the side/up the hill, if it’s a tsunami.

    And yes, there are many sides, but that is complexity and when it breaks down/blows up, polarities seem to emerge and coalesce out of the chaos, while the grey areas get shredded.

    As for illusion, what if it is all illusion? That it is not particle physics, but wave physics and this is just a hologram. Spooky action at a distance could just be the same wave and particles are emergent focal points. Weight, gravity, kinetic energy, quantization, etc. could all be explained by waves. An irreducible particle would be a monopole.

    It’s just our neurological need for stasis, for stable form, that makes us think there is something there. Form always eventually recedes. Only the energy is conserved.


  20. ejwinner


    I was actually trying to help you out on the last thread. I recognized that you were digging a deep ditch for yourself rhetorically, alienating rather than persuading, and hoped that you would recognize that concerning a complex and difficult topic, people expect complex and thoughtful commentary. I apologize if I came across otherwise.

    In my final post there, my sole point in remarking my having read so many books on Hitler and Nazi Germany, was simply to say, ‘look, I know this field, and it’s just not as you make it appear.’ I certainly wasn’t claiming scholarly expertise, but simply a familiarity with the material, which your posts seemed to lack. The point that really needed to be made concerns a touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I didn’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous as you were claiming.

    My ‘argument’ simply amounted to a caution that you did not yet have a fully formed argument.

    You now claim to have read Mein Kampf. I certainly could not tell that from the comments you posted. In your single-minded effort to quote passages that seemed to play your theme of the religious nature of Nazism, you left yourself utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. You certainly did not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic. Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. I was throughout my comments really trying to suggest that the matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether ‘religion is bad.’

    Hitler’s profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around; even the introduction to Heschel’s book you linked to suggests that was true of Nazis generally. (George Mosse covered the history of this process, going back through the 19th century, quite well.)

    Finally: “Having read books and having expertise are means to an end — the end being constructing better arguments.” No; that is not so; that is wrong. But it does provide insight into why you wish to continue an argument that closed down three days ago. The tone of anger tinged with bitterness in your comment here is unmistakable. Apparently learning or discussion are not so important; you want to be “right.” I can’t help you with that.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. ejwinner


    Sorry for the lengthy reply to Coel. I felt myself challenged, and unnecessarily so. Sorry also for assisting a distraction from your interesting post concerning an interesting topic. In future I’ll try to keep my comments shorter.

    As to your post, I remark that I agree with you, and with Acerbi and Mesoudi, and would probably go further. I would not deny progress in given fields of human experience; but history as a whole seems to meander, in a drunken walk, with no apparent goal. And of course, if we are to discuss anything like ‘cultural evolution,’ we must engage history, what would be the point otherwise?

    Which raises the question, why bother imposing a biological model on an already rich field of study and scholarship? History provides its own models. Why not pay attention to these?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. labnut

    I think Coel is right that the only option we have, unless we are ourselves experts, is to try to read intelligently and make up our own minds.

    Yes, of course, that is trivially true and was never under question. What is questionable is
    1. the adamant advocacy of one position as if it were settled knowledge.
    2. a lack of epistemic humility.
    2. bluntly contradicting acknowledged experts.
    3. selective reading to buttress well known ideological stances.
    4. a lack of readiness to consider alternative viewpoints.
    5. a determination to attack opposing viewpoints.

    The overwhelming majority of all we know is vicarious knowledge. Few of us have access to primary sources of knowledge. Every new piece of claimed knowledge we quickly and intuitively assess for credibility by applying the tests of coherence, authority and plausibility. This is aided and abetted by five things
    1. a lively sense of curiosity.
    2. a questioning, probing attitude.
    3. a readiness to inquire and research, a willingness to learn.
    4. a flexible mind open to surprise and new insights.
    5. a freedom from ideological dogma.

    At the end of the day we do form opinions and we should. But the strength of those opinions should be in proportion to how well settled is the state of the art.

    I enjoy the presence of querdenkers(I’m thinking particularly of DM, he makes me think of Muhammad Ali’s words – float like a butterfly, sting like a bee) because they make for a lively debate and provoke new insights. I think they perform an important function by shocking us out of established modes of thinking and should be valued for this. But the very opposite of the querdenker is the ideologue and it is the heavy hand of the ideologue that I oppose.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I don’t think Coel or I are disagreeing with you on anything that could be considered part of evobio 101.

    I’m not even sure we’re disagreeing with you at all really, on the tautology question at least. I think there’s just a minor difference in emphasis or approach.

    My only axe to grind is this idea that there is something problematic about the statement being a tautology. You explain how the tautology problem is avoided by appealing to independent measures of fitness. I, on the other hand, don’t think there is a problem in the first place. This is not a disagreement on evolutionary biology (101 or otherwise), but on the philosophy of the tautology (to which I guess I should defer to you anyway, seeing as you’re a professional philosopher!).

    As you point out yourself, all of mathematics is tautological. I don’t think SotF being tautological is a problem, for the reasons I gave. It is a tautology that is insightful because it helps to illustrate something that must be true but which wasn’t fully appreciated before Darwin.

    Furthermore, “survival of the fittest” being a tautology, I more or less think the mechanics of Darwinian evolution are logically entailed, given an appropriate environment and substrate. For me, it’s not just an empirical contingent observation. Given variation, differential rates of reproduction, heredity and so on, Darwinian evolution must take place, whether this be in the biology of earth, of other planets, of other universes or in entirely non-biological areas such as computer science (e.g genetic algorithms).

    But, on this independent measure of fitness question, I wonder could you elaborate. I am not questioning your credentials or your expertise here, and I am not contradicting you. I am literally just expressing how it seems to me and asking you to comment on this seeming.

    It seems to me that the independent measures of fitness we have in evobio are little more than plausible post hoc explanations of what we see not so different from the kind of thing we see in evopysch. For instance, we assume that some deer have impressive antlers because of sexual selection and competition. I don’t think we would have predicted, sight unseen, that deer would evolve impressive antlers before this trend began. So I’m not sure how independent these measures of fitness really are. We see the features of the organisms around us, and then we call “fit” those features we see, especially if we can concoct a plausible story about how these features contribute to survival and reproduction. If we can’t, we are left to speculate that they may be spandrels, the results of genetic drift or perhaps that they serve a function we have not yet perceived. Apart from making up just-so stories, we have no way of reliably measuring whether some feature is “fit” in the sense of adaptive other than by seeing how its presence or absence affects survival and reproduction, so I’m just not seeing the independence you’re talking about.

    With regard to memes, we are in not so different a position (it seems to me). We can make up just-so stories about why certain memes are more popular than others. It’s not hard to understand how chain letters which promise dire consequences if not forwarded managed to become so widespread for a time. Just as with the deer’s antlers, we have a very plausible story about how the features of the letter contributed to its survival and reproduction. We can compare and contrast the prevalence of chain letters which promised dire consequences if not forwarded with those which mentioned no rewards or punishments (just as we can compare the differences in reproductive success between deer with or without impressive antlers). So I’m not really seeing the difference there, with respect to having independent measures of fitness

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    You keep harping on the fact that fitness is defined in terms of survival and reproduction, and that that is not a problem. But nobody said it is, and certainly not I.

    Ok, so if you agree that fitness is defined in terms of survival and reproduction then the phrase “survival of the fittest” is a tautology. (Which is not a problem because “SofF” is not a statement of the theory.) Agreed?

    But your statement there seems inconsistent with your OP where you asked for “something that allows us to define the “fitness” of a trait independently of the empirical observation of whether the trait does or does not thrive in a population”. So I’m still rather baffled by your stance.

    … they add testability to their theories by deploying functional ecological considerations, what michael refers to “a priori” considerations.

    I (like DM) still don’t see how you can have any a priori account of fitness. All you can do is observe which traits do indeed lead to survival and reproduction. (And of course there is a lot of interesting biology in studying which traits amount to “fitness”.)

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  25. Coel

    Hi ejwinner,

    I’m not really disagreeing with you, and if your main point amounts to “it’s all much more complicated than that” then I agree, it is. You say that my previous comments didn’t account for a long list of things. You’re right, they didn’t, but nothing short of a 500-page book would have!

    My sole point was to rebut the very common claim that the Nazis were non-religious. It is people making that claim who are being over-simplistic and flat-out wrong. One can rebut that claim without needing to produce the much lengthier analysis you call for.

    If you’re interested, before writing that article on Nazi racial ideology, I’d read Main Kampf and Table Talk and compilations of Hitler’s speeches, and Rosenberg’s book and books by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Hans Gunther and de Gobineau (all to try to get a feel for what they were actually thinking), and scholarly works such as the ones by Steigmann-Gall and Heschel that I pointed to, and stuff by Robert Richards, and more standard works such as Kershaw, and books directly opposed to my conclusions, such as that by Richard Weikart.

    I’ve put a pointer up-thread about why I’m dubious about Kershaw’s take on this. You suggest that one should take the mainstream consensus, but my whole concern here is that the mainstream, and indeed the post-War West as a whole, has traditionally been steeped in the equation of “godless” with “immoral”, and that much of the suggestion that the Nazis were “godless” is based solely on them being immoral.

    There are numerous examples of such bias from scholars on this topic. The translation of the term “Gottgläubig” by the Polish historian Aleksander Lasik is one example that I highlighted in my article (and see the quote from Kershaw up-thread).

    It is only relatively recently, such as with the Steigmann-Gall and Heschel books, that that presumption is being examined and the religious nature of the Third Reich recognised.


  26. davidlduffy

    So, if I am reading a paper like:
    which makes free use of terminology such as “evolutionarily unstable”, “evolutionary stability of these strategies in population games and their relationship to and impact on the evolution of cooperation”, “weak selection”, “strong selection”, and estimate “mean fitness” and “fixation probabilities” of different strategies, what am I to think? The model for changes in population frequency of the different strategy types could as easily be applied to cultural or genetic transmission models. Fitness is success in winning a round of the game, “where [after] each round one player is selected to reproduce proportionally to fitness and one player is selected to be replaced uniformly at random”.

    Sure we may have difficulty putting our finger on the exact equivalent to the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma in the real life of humans and other organisms, but aspects of it are certainly familiar.

    As to the relevance of the success or otherwise of Genetic Algorithms etc in solving maximization problems via not very clever brute force versus an intelligent problem solver – I think that’s the point. Plasticity of behaviour means an optimum can be found much more quickly, but it doesn’t mean that the different methods (eg instinct v. intelligence) can’t arrive at the same solution eg making a nest of twigs to hold eggs.

    Finally, re A.H. and the Godwinization of Plato’s Footnote. Surely the real question is not about a particular person but the aggregate behaviour of the population and of institutions and whether they are resistant to immoral ideas. Many writers see a direct link from Martin Luther via the German Protestant churches through to 20C Germany.

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