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May 18, 2003


I said I would come back to this question.

It is tedious to spend long on definitions, but I should say what I mean by ‘useful’. I don’t want to tie it too closely to biological (reproductive) fitness. Arguably the effect of a cultural trait on biological fitness should always be the ultimate criterion, but in practice the effects on fitness will often be remote or obscure. I therefore propose to use the term roughly as follows: a cultural trait is useful for a person if, in the absence of social coercion, it helps that person to obtain some independently desired good or to avoid some independently feared evil.

Just two comments on this definition. First, the qualification ‘in the absence of coercion’ is necessary to deal with the problem of social pressure. In most societies, people who depart from generally accepted practices are likely to be ostracised or punished. This is not sufficient to make a trait ‘useful’ under the definition. Second, the reference to ‘independently desired’ (or feared) outcomes is necessary to exclude the case where the pursuit of an established custom is its own reward, or where departure from a custom is its own punishment. It is likely that people do obtain some satisfaction from the mere fact of carrying out a routine, and feel anxious if they depart from it, but this should not suffice to make it ‘useful’. Without these two qualifications, any existing custom would almost automatically be ‘useful’.

The ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ referred to in the definition could be of many kinds. Goods might include nutrition, shelter, sex, and offspring, or less tangible rewards such as status, security, and friendship. Evils might include death, illness, pain, fear, hostility, and loss of status. Abstract ideals such as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, moral values, or a sense of beauty, should not be ruled out. (This is one reason why I don’t want to tie the concept of ‘usefulness’ too closely to biological fitness, as it is quite unclear whether these abstract ideals contribute to fitness.)

Even by this very broad definition, many cultural traits do not seem ‘useful’.
Take three conspicuous examples. First, the kula system of the Trobriand islands, which involves an elaborate cycle of ritual exchanges. People go on long voyages, at risk of shipwreck, just to exchange shell-necklaces and other trinkets with their designated kula-partners. Second, the notorious potlatch of the Kwakiutl Indians, in which rivals competed by destroying their own most valuable possessions. Third, the Australian aboriginal practice of subincision, which I won’t describe, save to say that in Australia it is colloquially known as ‘whistlecocking’. These are admittedly extreme examples, but a large proportion of the cultural traits in the anthropological record seem pointless, wasteful, or harmful. For example, most societies have very elaborate restrictions on marriage, going far beyond anything that might be necessary to prevent inbreeding. Then there are complex taboos regulating eating, sexual activity, and other actions. Painful and dangerous initiation rites are commonplace. False beliefs in witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena are almost universal.

It is true that the anthropological records are biased towards the unusual and
spectacular. Doubtless the average savage spends most of his or her time in gathering witchety grubs, tending the yams, and other useful everyday activities. Nevertheless there is a large amount of seemingly maladaptive belief and behaviour to be explained. Early anthropologists like Tylor and Frazer were quite willing to see this as a result of errors of observation and reasoning by primitive peoples, which could only be overcome by progress towards a scientific understanding of nature. Levy-Bruhl and others went so far as to postulate a childish or ‘pre-logical’ mentality. The general tendency of anthropologists in the twentieth century, however, was to assume that there must be some deep meaning and value in seemingly irrational behaviour, either in fulfilling some social ‘function’, or as an element in a wider symbolic ‘structure’ (I confess here that I have not spent much time on Levi-Strauss and other ‘structuralists’ - life is too short). But I see no grounds for this assumption. (For more on all this see Christopher Hallpike’s excellent ‘The Principles of Social Evolution’.) Whether cultural traits can be considered in any sense ‘useful’ needs to be approached without a presumption that they are. Obviously I don’t expect to reach a definitive answer to that question, but it is possible to set out some relevant factors.

The capacity to acquire and transmit culture has presumably evolved by
conventional biological selection operating on individuals and their kin. This implies that those individuals who possessed a greater ability to acquire and transmit cultural traits had an advantage of biological fitness over those who did not. This is eminently plausible. Humans can only survive in a variety of hostile environments by learning a wide range of acquired skills and knowledge, and passing them on to their offspring. As I have argued previously, it does not follow that all or even most cultural traits are desirable in themselves. The value of cultural transmission for certain purposes might be so great that it outweighs the cost of carrying many useless or harmful traits.

It may still be said that natural selection on individuals will tend to eliminate maladaptive cultural traits. If such traits are damaging to reproductive fitness,
then those individuals who are predisposed to reject or resist them (while accepting useful traits) will have more offspring, and resistance will increase in frequency, just like resistance to a disease. For this to happen it is not even necessary that the resistance should have a genetic basis: it is sufficient that it should have ‘heritability’, whether genetic or cultural. This is in principle a sound argument, but it has two weaknesses. One is that cultural change is probably often faster than natural selection, given the human generation length of about 30 years. Natural selection would therefore be chasing after a moving target and never catching it. The second is that cultural conformity is often enforced by punishment for failure to conform (I defer the question why this should be so, which seems to me one of the fundamental problems in the human sciences). Where this is the case, those individuals who resist a harmful trait will not necessarily reap a fitness benefit.

There are some other arguments for the view that cultural traits are generally
likely to be useful. In a previous note I considered the theory that cultural traits are the product of a process of group selection, in which groups with certain cultural traits are more successful than others, so that those traits tend to survive, evolve, and spread. I don’t rule this out as a factor in cultural evolution, but for the reasons given previously I don’t think it ensures that the
majority of cultural traits are useful. I also considered the idea that cultural traits themselves (rather than social groups) are directly the object of natural selection, as in Richard Dawkins’s theory of memes. There is disagreement on how widely applicable or fruitful the concept of memes is, but even those who favour the idea do not claim that it guarantees that cultural traits are useful - if anything, the opposite.

A further argument is based on functionalist anthropology. It is said that if a society actually exists, and has persisted for at least several generations, its institutions and customs must be broadly successful in contributing to its survival. This view is associated with Radcliffe-Brown, in such passages as these: ‘By the function of an institution I mean the part it plays in the total system of social integration of which it is a part... I am assuming that the function of culture as a whole is to unite individual human beings into more or less stable social structures... That assumption I believe to be a sort of primary postulate of any objective and scientific study of culture or of human society... The new anthropology regards any persisting culture as an integrated unity or system, in which each element has a definite function in relation to the whole’ (‘Method in Social Anthropology’, pp. 62 and 72). It seems to me that this kind of formulation goes far beyond what can logically be inferred from the persistence of a society as such. The most one can legitimately infer is that some of the institutions of the society have enabled it to survive, and that none of them have (yet) proved so disastrous that it has been driven to extinction.

A final argument rests on the fact that human action rests on conscious choice. Every ritual, belief, or custom, must originally have been adopted because people believed it served some purpose. Humans, even in primitive societies, are not robots: they are capable of judging the consequences of their actions and deciding whether to adopt, modify, or abandon a particular custom. I think there is some force in this argument, but it should not be pressed too far. There are two basic difficulties: first, in primitive society (and our own) many actions are based on false beliefs; and second, in many areas the consequences of an action are too complex or remote to be foreseen, or to be recognised when they occur. I would distinguish between two spheres of activity: those where the costs and benefits of the actions are immediately observable, and those where they are not. An example of the first would be methods of making fire: either the method works or it doesn’t, and everyone can see immediately whether it does. An example of the second would be methods of making rain. In our view, none of the methods used by primitive peoples actually works, but they continue to use them because rain comes sooner or later in any event. They remember the ‘successes’ and forget the failures (or explain them away by their own failure to perform the ritual correctly, etc.)

Against the arguments that cultural traits are likely to be useful, there are several equally a priori arguments for the opposite view. One is based on the prevalence of cultural conservatism. Conservatism is in general quite a rational position, precisely because some of the customs of a society really are likely to be valuable. But since nobody is in a position to judge which are valuable and which are not, the only prudent policy is to continue with all of them. One effect of conservatism is that institutions are likely to become more elaborate over time, as it is easier to add to them than reform them. There is an old joke about the business chief who complains: ‘half of our advertising expenditure is wasted. If only we knew which half!’ Maybe half our culture is wasted.

The second point is the existence of vested interests. Once a practice is well-established, there are likely to be individuals who benefit from it, even if it is harmful to others. The witch-doctor is hardly likely to welcome scepticism about witchcraft, and the sceptics may be the first to find themselves in the cooking pot. Vested interests may also be intellectual or emotional. If you have spent most of your life believing in certain doctrines, and investing time and emotions in them, you will be reluctant to give them up. (Yes, this is an
example of the Concorde Fallacy, but the fallacy is undoubtedly widely held.) A variant on this theme is the common feeling by those who have paid some price for something that no-one else should get it for free. For example, adults who have been through a harsh initiation ritual will want it to be inflicted on the next generation, even their own children.

Finally, there are various problems arising from conflict or competition. E.g.,
blood feuds between clans may be ruinous for both sides, but neither side can unilaterally end the feud without suffering the shame of defeat. Or the potlatch, where any individual participant would lose more (in status) by withdrawing from the competition than he would gain by saving his property. In game-theoretical terms, many social ‘games’ have negative aggregate payoffs. There may also be a a built-in tendency to ‘escalation’, pushing traits far beyond what would be necessary or useful in the absence of competition. For all these reasons, we might expect cultural traits to be far from optimal, either for individuals or for society as a whole.

Developing what I said earlier about ‘spheres of activity’, I suggest we should
actually think in terms of a spectrum. At one extreme are those everyday
activities like gathering food or making fire, where the practical usefulness of the action is immediately visible. At the other extreme are general belief systems, where the validity of beliefs is essentially unconstrained by observation, though they may have practical consequences, such as the need to make sacrifices or comply with taboos. In between, there are a wide range of customs relating to kinship and marriage, property and inheritance, criminal law, and the like. In these cases, it is reasonable to say that the customs in question must ‘work’, in the minimal sense that any gross failure of the system would be observable. For example, if a marriage system routinely left a large proportion of the desirable females unmarried, some action would be taken. In some societies the categories of permitted marriage are apparently ‘tweaked’ in this situation, rather in the way that the South Africans under apartheid found it convenient to designate the Japanese as ‘honorary whites’. However, I see no reason to think that most societies are any better than our own at recognising and correcting institutional failures - and we are not good at it.

All this is largely negative - a ‘shreds and patches’ view of culture (Lowie). That doesn’t necessarily make it false. It is relevant to note that over the last two centuries most of the world’s peoples have given up much of their traditional culture, without replacing it by anything of similar complexity. This does suggest that the traditional culture may not have played any vital role in their life.

Anyone who has struggled to the end of this note will be relieved to hear that I won’t be blogging for a week or two. When I return, I hope to post occasional notes on various issues, but I will try to keep them shorter!


Posted by David B at 03:16 AM

Early generations of anthropologists were often artsy, escapist sorts and also had to deal with the belief that their peoples were worthless failures or primitive evildoers. So there was a heavy freight of advocacy (which, however, was not all bad).

Functionalism was an attempt to include primitive societies within a Whiggish sort of utilitarianism by showing that they too were rational. Not entirely plausible; rather like the Chicago economists' attempt to extend their paradigm by describing families in terms of exchange relations between mother, father, and child. (Also resembles Dawkins' Panglossianism; I'm the Gouldian on this site.).

"Functionality" of traits is hard to know in a less-competitive situation. Cultural traits that had worked fine for centuries or millenia became disfunctional once the Europeans showed up. Some bizarre native Australian traits have been explained as birth control methods preventing overpopulation. (Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Society). Theoretically, with low population density, stratification and state domination did not appear, since in cases of competition it was always possible to move on to find new resources. (Most peoples now studied by anthropology live in remote locations less-suitable for civilized exploitation).

The potlatch has been explained as a way of deflating the currency. The potlatcher puts people in his debt by giving, and makes it harder to repay the debt by destroying wealth. Prestige is at stake; items destroyed are luxury prestige items, not useful items. The kula has been explained in similiar terms -- a harmless way of establishing a pecking order and peaceful forms of interchange.

With a non-utilitarian ends-means analysis some things are regarded as goods in themselves rather than as means. If these are costly or wasteful, that does not mean that they are disfunctional. They're just the goals of the system -- products or outputs or consumption or fun. But in competition with another leaner society, the society that has more fun usually loses. Deal with it.

A friend of a friend was an anthropologist in the Andes studying a people whose males all had scars scattered over their bodies. It turned out that they had a practice of capturing poisonous snakes and playing games with them. The anthropologist asked questions as to the religious sanction for this, and they sort of looked at him and said that they were just doing it for fun. It was their version of motorcycle racing or "chicken". (Razib, an Imbler version of this is friends taking turns shooting .22's as close as possible to one another until someone is killed. Or playing William Tell with a hunting arrow and shooting it into your friend's eye.)

The snake-handling story is a friend of a friend to me, but an urban legend to you. The Imbler stories are documented in the Oregonian.

Posted by: zizka at May 18, 2003 07:41 AM

I think posts would benefit from a more topical focus (eg, responding to current events or new research). Your insights are impressive, but this ain't the place for chapters of an unwritten book.

Posted by: eric at May 18, 2003 12:31 PM


Posted by: rand at May 18, 2003 09:00 PM

Change the channel...

Posted by: Stephen at May 18, 2003 10:30 PM

Eric: my last post before this one was a report on a very topical piece of research, in the latest issue of Nature, on a fundamental topic in evolution. That post received precisely one comment, by a pseudonymous idiot.

Posted by: David B at May 19, 2003 02:09 AM

David - ignore the idiots. Your posts are superb - I've just been too overwhelmed by them and other things recently to comment.

Posted by: Jason Soon at May 19, 2003 05:51 AM

ditto from me-been busy and way from blogging.

Posted by: razib at May 19, 2003 12:20 PM

Perhaps the question is ill-formed. "Is Culture Useful?" should read, "Why Culture Happens." It is not a question of function, but definition. To define by function is not the same as to define by description. The former is causative.

If you concentrate on function, you'll see it differently than when concentrating on description.

Posted by: David Yeagley at May 19, 2003 03:27 PM

David B, I too enjoyed this and previous posts, and see no reason it doesn't belong here. I come by every morning to get my fix of clearheaded exposition and this certainly fits the bill.

Posted by: jim at May 19, 2003 06:38 PM

I found it much more interesting than the discussion of South Asian athletic ability. This forum is diverse indeed.

Posted by: zizka at May 19, 2003 07:35 PM