Neo Cultural-Evolutionism

In evolutionary religious studies there are some scholars who claim that “religion” is an adaptation that is the product of natural selection. Though there are several different variants of this argument, all of them rely – in one way or another – on some form of “cultural evolution.” This is not cultural evolution in the old-fashioned, progressive, and normative anthropological sense (i.e., Lubbock, Tylor, and Frazer). In its modern guises, cultural evolution relies on some variant of gene-culture co-evolution, niche construction, or memetics. While Dawkins and Dennett continue professing faith in memetics, they are pretty much alone. The most serious cultural evolutionary contender is the dual-inheritance model first proposed by Boyd and Richerson (1985) in Culture and the Evolutionary Process.

While these kinds of models are certainly plausible and mathematically elegant, I have long doubted that cultural units (such as “religion”) are the equivalent of genetic units and can be reduced to a simple variable that captures anything meaningful about the multi-causal complexities of cultural reality. “Religion” is not a simple binary that can be expressed as either present/absent, and its simple presence (in an equation) does not tell us anything meaningful about its motive force or social effects. Nor can these variables or equations deal with religious diversity and difference within a group (i.e., within religion schism or conflict), or the ways in which group identity-membership is conditioned and expressed by factors other than religion. In addition, I have long argued that these models are, at bottom, analogical or even metaphorical. In expressing my doubts and making these arguments, I’ve had several commenters (some of them distinguished) disagree.

Given these disagreements, it is nice to have the distinguished Massimo Pigliucci weigh in on the subject. Over at berfrois, he recently asked: “Is Cultural Evolution a Darwinian Process?” His answer is no. Why? Because the source of variation in biological evolution is random, whereas the source of variation in cultural evolution is directed. This foundational difference means that the two processes are different, both in cause and effect. It’s an elegant and simple argument, one which I’m sure will be opposed by the evolutionary theists who see God’s teleological handiwork in evolution and wish to demonstrate it through dual inheritance, gene-culture co-evolution, and group level selection.

And speaking of metaphors (masquerading as theory), Colin McGinn has had enough of the misleading “homunculus talk” that is so pervasive in cognitive science:

Here I must say something briefly about the standard language that neuroscience has come to assume in the last fifty or so years (the subject deserves extended treatment). Even in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain “process information,” “send signals,” and “receive messages”—as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. We need to scrutinize such talk with care. Why exactly is it thought that the brain can be described in these ways? It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms. It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on.

The mistake is to suppose that wires and neurons are homunculi that somehow mimic human subjects in their information-processing powers; instead they are simply the causal background to genuinely informational transactions. The brain considered in itself, independently of the mind, does not process information or send signals or receive messages, any more than the heart does; people do, and the brain is the underlying mechanism that enables them to do so. It is simply false to say that one neuron literally “sends a signal” to another; what it does is engage in certain chemical and electrical activities that are causally connected to genuine informational activities.

Contemporary brain science is thus rife with unwarranted homunculus talk, presented as if it were sober established science. We have discovered that nerve fibers transmit electricity. We have not, in the same way, discovered that they transmit information. We have simply postulated this conclusion by falsely modeling neurons on persons. And there is theoretical danger in such loose talk, because it fosters the illusion that we understand how the brain can give rise to the mind.

This much we do understand: linguistic primates love their symbols and stories.

André´ Masson "Ville Cranienne" (Skull City), 1940

André Masson “Ville Cranienne” (Skull City), 1940

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4 thoughts on “Neo Cultural-Evolutionism

  1. Dominik Lukes

    I’ve heard Steve Jones say in an interview that cultural evolution is more Lamarckian than Darwinian several years ago. It’s interesting that this obvious insight doesn’t have more traction.

    I’ve been thinking about how memes work for a long time. It’s a very appealing metaphor that seems to work very well on the surface. But on closer inspection, it fails to map onto natural selection in more cases than not. In some memes, like the one popularized by the internet, it seems to be the environment that changes rather than the meme itself. A YouTube video just sits there but its popularity grows as people respond to it. Of course, it’s more complex than that but obviously very different from say the ‘eye’ which keeps changing while the environment mostly just sits there.

  2. jayarava

    Interesting. The question I’m left with concerns metaphors. If I use a metaphor – such as a person communicating – to describe a process, then the easiest way to attack my conclusions is to argue that I have either misunderstood my own metaphor (applied it inappropriately) or that I have mistakenly taken my own metaphor literally. Isn’t this what McGinn has done here?

    When we are discussing something that is not visible to the human eye, but must be inferred indirectly, we inevitably use metaphor to do so. This is George Lakoff’s insight. Such metaphors are generally speaking rooted in how in we interact with the world. So I can intellectually grasp an abstract concept, but at no time does any entity ‘concept’ substantially exist or does any physical grasping take place. I could be criticised in precisely McGinn’s terms for making ‘understanding’ (which is still a metaphor but less obviously) into a homunculus activity – there is no little person with hands grasping anything and holding it. But so what? It’s just a metaphor and no one actually believes it to be anything other than a metaphor.

    With the brain we have tended to use the most sophisticated metaphors we have to describe how it works. Currently this is information networks. Billions of neurons sending electro-chemical signals to thousands of their neighbours does resemble an information network.

    On the other hand we know that cells are capable of quite sophisticated “behaviour” – think of an amoeba and the various tropisms it can manifest. We know that even bacteria living in colonies send chemical signals to each other which coordinate their ‘behaviour’ – and in slime moulds this can be remarkably sophisticated. Is there reason to believe that neurons are less sophisticated than other kinds of cells? Less sophisticated than bacteria? The suggestion seems to be that individual cells are simply chemical engines with no individual behaviour. But I think this is way off beam. I don’t go down the “quantum consciousness” root, but cells are not simple.

    The dangers of anthropomorphism are legend. On the other hand the dangers of relating to the environment without empathy have led us to damage the ecosphere and to annihilate species and races. The one benefit of anthropomorphism is that we end up caring about the object. When we use a human metaphor it allows us to come into a certain kind of relationship with our object of study. It is a very human response to the world to want to have a relationship with it, rather than being a distant and isolated observer. The latter seems to me to have become a problematic stance these days.

    McGinn is welcome to criticise these metaphors and remind us of the danger of taking metaphors literally, but I don’t think his contribution is more valuable than those who are proceeding with the metaphor. Exploring the brain with this metaphor in mind has lead to considerable advances in our grasping what the brain does. I don’t think it has run it’s course yet, but it will no doubt in time be replaced by a better metaphor.

  3. jayarava

    McGinn is not entirely immune from the process he describes: he talks of the most “sober neuroscience textbook”, but textbooks are neither sober nor drunk, are they? Although by sober here I think he means “unemotional” – the metaphor has layers. Writers of textbooks might be emotional or not, but the books are just the causal backdrop to the communication. Books themselves cannot be emotional much less individual words, it is only human beings that are emotional. We can turn the whole thing on it’s head and ask how an affectless human being came to be seen as admirable?

  4. Juggernaut Nihilism

    The point is not that we shouldn’t use metaphors or analogies but, at least in the realm of science, that we remain cognizant of them lest we fool ourselves into believing that certain fundamental issues are solved when they are not. Imprecise language typically demonstrates not an unproven theory, but an unelucidated assumption, which is far more dangerous.

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