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May 24, 2003
I've often asked and wondered out loud on this blog about a question that gets at me-the nations that have the highest IQs today, those of northern Europe and eastern Asia, were not the first to be "civilized," and in fact, lagged for a reasonable amount of time after the first flowering of higher culture in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris & Euphrates and the Indus .
As I was walking down the street I thought of my own family. My grandfathers were men of some success, a doctor of medicine and religion respectively. My father is a chemist while of my mother's six brothers there are engineers, biologists, officers & businessmen (my father's brothers are accountants, not as big a deal in my estimation ;). But the demographic transition within these generations have been fast & furious. My grandfathers had 6 and 7 children. Of their sons & daughters, my own parents are the most prolific (three sons, one daughter), all my uncles or aunts have one or two children, and in the case of a few, none. In 2002 Bangladesh's total fertility rate was 2.72, so there isn't THAT much of a difference, but most of my aunts and uncles had their children in the 80s or early 90s when the TFR was far higher . I share this only to illustrate how quickly demographic transitions can happen-though my grandfathers were wealthy men, my aunts & uncles are far more well off in terms of consumer goods (perhaps less asset rich in land, but more at ease in general)-and they have quickly transitioned to the western middle-class ideal of one to two children. In contrast, I suspect that a typical Bangladeshi peasant has a higher fertility than this, and in fact, perhaps close what their forbears experienced because of the grotesquely higher infant mortality rates in generations past (since peasants are 90% of Bangladesh's population, that means a TFR of a little over 2.72-no mean feat).
I myself might not have children-and I wouldn't be surprised if many of my cousins did not. What does that entail? On an individual level, not much. But my general implication and worry has to do with dysgenesis. Greg Cochran has asserted that the United States has been in positively dysgenic since the late 19th century (and the West as a whole). But civilization hasn't collapsed...yet.
Past speculation about dysgenesis is often empty and slap-dash, so I won't get into specifics. But, doing a thought experiment, I think it is plausible that welfare benefits that favor dysgenesis carry within them the seeds of their own destruction, and a future re-equilibration of the mean IQ. As social order collapses and resources become scare, perhaps intelligence once more becomes selectively fit, and the fabric of society stitches itself back together...and the cycle starts again. Over time this function oscillates around the mean IQ and gives one the illusion that human mental capacities have not changed over the past 10,000 years.
Just a thought or two....
 Though China has a reasonably antique pedigree it did not really catch up to the societies of western Eurasia until the Han Dynasty. For instance, not only did the age of iron come late to China, archaic forms of warfare based on chariots persisted longer than they did in the Near East. Of course, on other fronts, especially theological, some could say that the Sinic way was more progressive.
 The comparison is also a bit stretched in the case of my family. I live in the US, but I have cousins in the UK, Venezuala and Sweden (and some half-brown cousins at that, though so far, the white gene pool has been spared, they being half-Japanese, Syrian and Venezualan).
May 22, 2003
And she begat daughters....
This article in the Economist reports the preferential skewing toward females among malnourished Ethiopian women at birth. The two reasons given are that male fetuses drain more resources than female ones and so might be aborted at greater rates while additionally daughters are a more likely a possibility to pass on genes in hard times . The dynamism inherent in pregnancy can be further illustrated by this article that elaborates on the effects of birth-order, immune reaction by women to male fetuses and possible ramifications for homosexuality and other phenotypes.
On a cultural note, though most societies seem to evince son preference, a recent study (which I can't find via google) indicated that medieval european peasants tended to kill & neglect sons, while the gentry exhibited the male preference that we expect (they surveyed headstones at graves in the cases of infants). The modern tendency in cultures like India and China to be male-skewed might be an instance of elite emulation facilitated by mass media. In contrast parts of Europe and Japan are now shifting back toward daughter preference (in times of plenty).
Finally, I would like to add an interesting personal note. My mother is one daughter with six siblings, all of them male. My father is one of four boys and two girls. At least for the past 200 years I know my family has been of moderately elite status on both sides (though no longer in the West of course!).
 David Sloan Wilson uses the balanced sex ratio as evidence for group level selection-he argues that individual interests favor having sons, while group selection favors daughters, and the parity indicates an cancelling of these forces.
McKibben vs. Bailey on the line of your germs
Bill McKibben & Ron Bailey are getting into it over germline alterations over @ Reason. I am reading McKibben's Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age & Greg Stock's Redesigning Humans (the new paperback version that just came out and has some extra material). But I just finished Ridley's new book & need to digest it, so a review/commentary will be forthcoming, but perhaps late, on the aforementioned works.
Also, GNXP readers might be interested to know that I'll be in NYC between the 5th and 8th of June. The days of the 6th & 7th and the morning of the 8th are pretty free for me-so drop me a line @ razib-at-gnxp.com if you want to have coffee or something, I already plan on meeting a few people via blog. Oh, and I'll also be in the LA area after the 8th for 3-4 days at least.
The IQ debate
The Spectator has a nice little article detailing the recent history of acrimony between Jensen & co. and their opponents under the leadership of S. J. Gould. Race figures prominently of course.... (thanks to Steve Sailer for the link)
May 21, 2003
Man bites dog
One of the weirdest stories I've ever read about - half black man becomes neo-Nazi activist. What a sick puppy:
There was a similar case in Australia. Jack van Tongeren, responsible for a series of bombings of Asian businesses in Perth, recently released from prison and something of a godfather in the Aussie neo-Nazi movement, is half-Indonesian. Lumpenproles, all of them.
Update: NY TIMES Magazine has a profile of the black white supremacist.
May 20, 2003
Pan sapiens? Homo troglodytes?
This article about the "controversy" over reclassifying humans or chimps because of their close relationship (chimps are closer to humans than gorillas in genetic distance) is pretty stupid-this is old news . Sounds to me a bit like the bruhaha over reclassifying Pluto from a planet to a planetesimal or whatever-who really cares?
On the other hand this also shows why racial cladistics is so hard, it's tricky enough when you have species to figure out on what basis to classify them. A chimp and a gorilla (at least Common Chimpanzees and Lowland Gorillas) probably overlap phenotypically (skeletal structure from large chimps to small gorillas) more than either does with humans, and yet the lineage evidence indicates that chimps & humans are closer together....
 An evangelical Christian friend of mine refused to believed that chimps & humans were more than 95% congruent genetically (99% by some methods)-so it's not old news to everyone.
Journey of Men
Just read Spencer Wells' book Journey of Man, a brief but thorough survey of human population genetics in the vein of Cavalli-Sforza's The Great Human Diasporas and Bryan Sykes' Seven Daughters of Eve. While Sykes focused on Europe and mitochondrial DNA lineages (the mother line) Wells puts the spotlight on Y chromosomal lineage (the father line). Wells gives a few reasons why the Y chromosomal lineage can yield more information-there are more points for mutations to build up and human patrilocality tends to skew toward male genetic localization and diversity.
The book has less fluffy filler and more "red meat" than Sykes' work. Like Sykes, Wells is trying to make money, though he is an independent consultant rather than a businessman, so he has incentive to make this field "exciting." Basically Wells is doing archeogenetics-tracking movements of populations using genetics. Human beings have an inordinate amount of interest in their origins-so it makes sense that we would care about our recent antecedents at least as much as which branch of the more ancient hominid lines we issue from. Much of the data that Wells draws upon comes straight from the Human Population Genetics Laboratory at Stanford University (follow the links and see detailed publications which offer more than the sketches given in the book). Of course Wells draws from the work of other laboratories to fill in the gaps but the major selling point of the book seems to be his insider point of view, and in contrast to Sykes he doesn't get tedious about the interpersonal details and let it overwhelm his narrative. The fact that Wells made a film on this subject for PBS probably helped him frame the story in a more compelling fashion.
There are a few obligatory chapters that serve as a genetics primer (though he continues to insert these elucidations throughout the work after the introduction which can be distracting) and descriptions of the scientific methods that have made analysis of Y chromosomal lineages far easier than in the past. To lay persons the methodology will be uninteresting and to those in the know it will be redundant and simplified, so though these sort of chapters are necessary to make a book of this sort seem complete, I doubt many will read them closely.
You hit the payoff near the end of the book, especially chapter eight, titled The Importance of Culture, which is a detailed exposition of the current knowledge in archaeogenetics, slanted a bit toward Wells' own researches and travels (chapter eight also has a nice map of the movement of markers that transmits the gist). But before I hit this, I have to address a few minor political points. Like his mentor Cavalli-Sforza Wells innoculates himself against any charge that he is studying race. On the back cover there is a blurb from one Dick Lewontin and a paean within to his study back in the 1970s that showed that most human genetic diversity was not between races, in fact less than 10% . Wells also attacks C. S. Coon, the physical anthropologist who published The Origin of Races and elaborated a theory that pre-dated the modern multiregional camp, arguing for five human subspecies that attained sapiency independently . Milford Wolpoff rebuts the naive charges of racism against Coon in Race & Human Evolution and highlights the differences between modern ideas of multiregionalism and their percursors, such as Coon's theory . Wells several times attempts to paint the multiregionalists as deluded cranks. I personally do think the evidence for Out-of-Africa is compellling, but Wells does not make it clear enough in my opinion to the lay audience that it is still circumstantial, genetics is after all not physics, and multiregionalists are not Steady Staters . An argument can be made that Wells is trying not to muddy the waters in a book that is only 200 pages, but that is no excuse for giving the public a misimpression of the situation on the ground.
There are also a few attempts by Wells to explain human adaptations and delve into evolutionary psychology-he lauds Toobey & Cosmides in one section-but they are sleepers compared to the rest of the book. But there was one section that he seemed to dwell on, and which ties in to his focus on the north-south difference in the Out-of-Africa migrations. On page 117 he talks about the "central Asian" clan forged in the fires of the brutal tundra (so to speak):
Wells' own ancestors did come from the interior of Eurasia, as did some of his wife's (she is mentioned as Hong Kong Chinese). But these were not the ancestors of most Africans or Australians, and few southern or western Asians. I will let readers connect the dots-but Wells talks about Calvin's idea of the Ice Age being a sort of pump that pushed humans back and forth and served as an impulse for higher intellectual development.
So after Spencer makes a few half-hearted attempts at evolutionary psychology and natural history, he gets to the real meat, the preoccupation with ancestry, and the "clans" of humans (let's give him a good wink here). I'll sum up the main points in the book, with my own personal interjections. I suggest GNXPers read chapter 8 in the bookstore, the rest of it most who were well-read in evolutionary sciences already know (and to be sure much of chapter eight is cobbled together from the work of others).
Africa: That's where we come from. All of us. Those of us from outside Africa come from the northeast corner-in two major streams, one out along the Somali coast and another up through the Levant.
Europe: Wells quotes the 80/20 Paleolithic/Neolithic split as definitive. Basically Wells asserts that Europeans are mostly the descendents of Cro-Magnon people who have their origins in the central Asian cauldron. He has done research relating the remnants of the Sogdian people in Tajikstan (Yangbonis) to the English rather than the Uzbeks of the lowlands. Wells is obviously onto something here, but I did not find the updated figure that others are pushing, that Europeans are 50% descended from Middle Eastern farmers. In either case, there is a NW to SE gradient, while Greeks even in the 80/20 scenario possibly being closer to Levantine peoples than to Swedes. The European "bioculture" as some would say is the byproduct of a cocktail of Levantines and Cro-Magnons, the only question is the portion of each. I don't know where that leaves the Indo-Europeans, but I suspect that they were neither Cro-Magnons nor the first farmers-I think elite dominance is the way to go in Europe (and Wells seems to settle on this position as well).
East Asia & America: The northern wave that passed through central Asia and the southern wave via India and south east Asia seems to have met up in China. Some of the southern wave mingled early enough to push their genes over the Bering Strait to the Americas when the Siberian hunters populated it. Cavalli-Sforza's results that clustered northern Chinese with Europeans and southern Chinese with southeast Asians probably result from the higher portion of central Asian ancestry in the north. Rushton has wondered as to this result as the south Chinese have rather high IQs, but in this case, recent cultural practices might have had a stronger selective pressure than ancient adaptations during the Ice Age, as that aspect of phenotype converged in both north and south under the influence of the same culture. Unlike Europe, the agriculturalists in eastern Asia swamped the peoples of southeast Asia that were related to the Australian Aborigines and are to be found among the remnants like the Negritos and Andaman Islanders (even under the 50% Middle Eastern scenario northwest Europeans are mostly Cro-Magnon). Wells does not dwell on this difference, but obviously the descendents of Cro-Magnons were more flexible and more difficult to overpower than the scions of ancient beach-combers.
Australia: This ancient land is the most pure repository of the "southern wave." Henry Harpending, whose work Wells knows because he mentions it, suggests that the Great Leap Forward did not impact the Aboriginal peoples of Australia much at all. This whole area is filled with political land-mines, so of course Wells would tend to be careful here.
India: There is a strong signature of the "southern wave" in the female line though little in the male line. An early branch of the "northern wave" pushed into India around 30,000 years ago and is like an equivalent to the Cro-Magnon's of Europe. There were later "agricultural" waves from the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. Finally there is one marker Wells mentions that is prominent in much of India and eastern Iran called M17 that is also prominent in eastern Europe and seems to be from southern Russia. It, like many of the other markers, shows a strong NW-SE grandient, in this case, being found in 35% of men in Delhi but fewer than 10% of men in the Dravidian south. The dots are easy to connect.
Middle East: Not much to say here. Western Iran and eastern Iran are more different than one would think and there is little evidence for the "southern wave" in the Middle East, indicating that they didn't push farther inland. Seems the Middle East is important more as the starting point for migrations, primarily because its early role as agricultural innovators, sending culture & people north, west, south and east.
I could say more-but read the book. The details will change over the years, but I think Wells has presented a good hint of the outline that will be discerned about the history of human movements.
Update: Here's a version of the map in question (this is simplifying the picture of course!)....
 See this article by Steve Sailer taking on Lewontin's assertion. Additionally Wells does not even hint at the fact that Lewontin is a politicized Marxist who played a critical role in personally attacking E. O. Wilson during the sociobiology controversies of the 1970s. In fact, though S. J. Gould continued the good fight on behalf of the "anti-hereditarian" Left until his death, Lewontin faded away from public view, but books like Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate, pin-point him as the real svengali behind the scientists who made the scientific controversy into a circus.
 Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid, Congoid and Capoid were the races (at least from what I remember). Congoid and Capoid refer to the "black" and "Khoisan" peoples of Africa, while the others are rather self-explanatory.
 The short of it-Coon spoke out against racism early in his career, but he never developed the hypersensativity to racial questions that other anthopologists did after World War II, so it was easy to paint him as a Neandertal. His scientific theories can be salvaged only through intense modification-but the attacks that Wells and others engage in against him are very personal and accuse him of being an unreconconstructed bigot, I think to cover their own attempts to do what Coon did-reconstruct human racial history. Additionally they use Coon's quasi-multiregionalist ideas to taint modern multiregionalism as retrograde. Never one to not use tools at their disposal multiregionalists like Wolpoff paint the Out-of-Africa camp as vicious propogandists for the racial supremacy of modern Homo sapiens. Oh, and I have to add that Wells makes a big deal about the fact that Coon thought that Africans were an evolutionary "dead end." I didn't really get this from Coon's work, but perhaps it's my memory, but in any case, Wells himself contrasts the relatively easy life of beach-combers (southern wave) with the harsh life of northern Eurasians (northern wave). I can't but help wonder if he's trying to throw people off.
 To take the anology further, while it is hard to imagine a synthesis between static and expansionary universes, it does not seem impossible that both multiregionalism and Out-of-Africa hold a portion of the truth.
Hayek on neural networks and free will
A while ago, a commentator on one of my posts asked me to elaborate on my view on free will which I claimed was a useless concept. I suppose the next question would have been how my agnosticism about the existence of free will is reconcilable with classical liberalism. Well on this issue I get my bearings from Hayek and this paper by Gary Dempsey of Cato on Hayek's views on free will and his anticipation of the 'neural networks' idea should answer these questions, as well being a treat for enthusiasts of both evolutionary theory and Hayek. Here is the abstract:
Regarding the intellectual genealogy of the neural networks concept, here is a key quote:
Also note the anticipation of the memetics concept:
Finally a direct quote from Hayek himself on the normative implications of his brand of materialism:
That is , for normative purposes and everyday purposes we treat people *as if* they have free wil (and in fact the latter is unavoidable except for autistics)l. When we say that X is of sound mind and we hold him responsible for a crime and we punish him, how can we distinguish that from cases where we don't punish X because he isn't of sound mind?
Well, a punishment is basically a price signal we send into the environment of people contemplating the costs and benefits of the act similar to acts commited by X. The main aim of the justice system from a utilitarian perspective is deterrence. Let's say the objective of the system is to minimise the incidence of particular acts. Absent the punishment more of those acts would be committed, with the punishment a sting is introduced which all people otherwise inclined to act like X in future will then be forced to take into account - none of this requires free will in principle. X may decide not to rob a bank because it's too much hassle - whether this hassle comes from the fear of the law or that he can't afford to buy the right mask or doesn't know how to handle a gun properly is irrelevant from the perspective of positive explanation. Similarly we don't need to believe that plants have free will when they grow a certain way because of the direction of the sun.
What do we mean when we conclude that X can be held responsible for his crime and Y cannot because Y is schizophrenic? Well it means this extra price of robbing a bank we introduce into the system isn't going to be inputted by people of the category of Y into the calculus of costs and benefits in a way that would deter them from robbing banks because the signal receiver is too jammed. Again, no real need to *explain* the differences in doctrine in terms of free will.
May 19, 2003
Odds & Ends
I've been a bit remiss in blogging recently. A variety of reasons account for this-but in sum, I've just been busy.... Thanks to David B & Jason S for filling in with some meaty pieces.
I am reading three books that might be of interest to GNXP readers. First, Journey of Man by Spencer Wells. I've read part of it already and he seems to be elaborating on the idea of a north-south split in the Out-of-Africa thesis. Then, Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley and finally Redesigning Humans by Gregory Stock. These three books are nice together, Wells' book is more esoteric, and something that might interest those with an antiquarian streak, while Ridley speaks of the now and Stock will address the then .
Yesterday I read a book titled Life in the Near East. A nugget that I found interesting, it seems quite clear that much of Egyptian civilization was stimulated by cultural diffusion from Mesopatamia. Of course the speed at which Egyptians transformed themselves from hunter-gatherers to builders of pyramids is indicative of this, but there is some very specific information that points to exchange of ideas. The Early Dynastic Period saw the construction of buildings with notches-though this practice eventually disappears. In Mesopatamia notches were important to strengthen the brick buildings while Egypt with plenty of limestone did not need this. The presence of notches indicates a borrowing from the original Mesopatamiam source. I don't mean to imply that ancient Egyptians didn't produce anything of value or that they couldn't have been capable of such innovations themselves-but it seems to me that historians have swung too far away from diffusion, partially in the fear that they are devaluing the indigenous culture. Culture spread the other way too-the Indus Valley civilization, though indigenous, had clear connections to Mesopatamia. In fact there is now some evidence for an Elamo-Dravidian language family, Elam being the ancient nation that bordered Sumeria in modern day Khuzistan in southwestern Iran . Along with Brahui in Baluchistan this argues for the presence of Dravidian far to the west of South Asia. Additionally archeologists have always been a bit surprised at the abrupt rise of iron wielding higher civilization in southern India. Though the fleeing of the dausas before Aryan hordes seems a bit melodramatic, the evidence is pointing toward migrations and diffusions of technique & trade in a way in vogue earlier in the century, though at that time they were connected with race theory .
This gets to me another point in the ideas around ethno-genesis and culture formation. Dr. Snell (the author of the aforementioned book) indicates quite clearly that the ideas of "ethnicity" and "race" were fuzzy at best in the ancient Near East-that differentiation between Sumerians, who spoke an agglutinative language unrelated to any other, and Akkadians, who spoke a Semitic language, seems to have been difficult to ascertain as an individual could pick up names of the other group through adoption. Very early on in the King's List of the Sumerians there are men with clear Semitic names as rulers. There seems little mention of the ethnic tension and modern ideas of racial or ethnic consciousness are clearly out of place. It also begs the question as to why the Sumerians faded from history while the Semitic peoples did not. On a speculative note I might wonder if an accident of location might have contributed to this. While the Semitic peoples center of gravity was to the western edge of the core of agricultural innovation and the proto-Dravidian peoples to the east, the Sumerians were located in the center. While the Semitic peoples bordered "savage" tribes who they could assimilate or out-reproduce because of their cultural superiority (at least in manipulation of grains), the Sumerians were hemmed in by groups who were only a slight notch below them and so did not have the option of expanding in such a fashion. Over time the reservoir of uncivilized Semites in the Levant tipped the balance in favor of Akkadian, and later Aramaean, as the Semitic indigenes of Mesopatamia were reinfused with fresh settlers in a way the Sumerians were not.
Human beings are collections of reassorting genes that act in concert to form what we see as the individual. Our consciousness seems to at least present the simulacrum of unity and so we tend to view individuals as atomic units of organization even though we are a collective of genes supported by attendent cells that might very well have developed in the process of symbiogenesis . Because in the past most people mated with those who were near them, cosmetic markers, skin color, hair form, etc. were excellent proxies for someone's "race." To some extent they still are. These cosmetic markers show incredible ranges, from black skin to white, tall to short, wooly hair to straight. Though most people still mate with those of similar race, a non-trivial portion do not. These cosmetic markers are being mixed together in a fashion that makes race more difficult to ascertain, and in fact recent evidence from Brazil or among African-Americans indicates that social factors are pushing a decoupling of cosmetic markers from ancestry . Additionally, because cosmetic factors have been so important in the past, and so accurate as a proxy for ancestry, complex properties that are emergent from basic phenotypes such as personality, intelligence, etc. might decouple from appearence .
And it is the complex features that interest me. While some have asserted that a clear & well delineated number of races can be defined by classical phenotypic traits (color, skull form, hair form, etc.)-I am more interested in complex traits that show great overlap between "races." This blog has tended to focus on "intelligence," where it seems clear to me that the mean g between various populations are naturally different, some of this overlapping with classical races. But my rejection of organic mythic conceptions of race grounded in ideal types is due the fact that complex traits that are defined by mental functions are not so sharply differentiated even if they are statistically significant. It is these higher mental functions that define our humanity despite our preoccuption with cosmetic forms.
That's all for now....
 A lot of Stock's stuff can be found in godless' posts. Just use google and dig them up.
 I have just read that Elam practiced matrilineal royal succession. This is interesting of course because matrilineal traditions exist in southern India among the Dravidian speaking people.
 Colin Renfrew posited that Indo-Europeans spread agriculture through demic diffusion into Europe. He left unanswered the Indian part of the equation-but the presence of Dravidian relatives near the source of the Neolithic revolution seems to make the case for Dravidian demic diffusion into India as they spread agriculture and pushed the "tribal" people into the marginal lands. It was probably the Dravidians as well would brought a more unequivocally "Caucasoid" strain into the Indian subcontinent sometime after 10,000 BP.
 Apparently there was a shift in ideology during the height of the Assyrian Empire. The king of kings switched from calling everyone who was in Assyria Assyrians a century or so after mass deportations has changed the ethnic make-up. Obviously on some level they understood that Medes or Israelites were not "Assyrian" in the same way as the military families that supplied the soldiers, but it took some time to internalize this difference.
 In short I'm alluding to the origins of the organelles in the cell as independent organisms and the subsequent specialization of tissues into organs.
 Elaboration-white or black physical appearence is a far weaker predictor of African or European ancestry than once thought. This might mean that a "black" American could get cystic fibrosis despite overwhelming black appearence or a "white" American could suffer from sickle cell anemia without Sicilian ancestry. The drive behind this is probably assortive mating. Though this might be dismissed as a minor occurrence I would argue that assortive mating is becoming very powerful as a driver of "race" formation and re-formation.
 What I'm saying is that the super-high IQ Asians, Jews and WASP are assorting by intelligence, creating a new "race" defined more by their complex phenotypes that mark them as outliers among their natural "race." Of course the heritability of these phenotypes is tenditious-though g and Plomin's work seems to indicate that there are some central root properties at work that might be highly heritable.
May 18, 2003
IS CULTURE USEFUL?
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’.
It is true that the anthropological records are biased towards the unusual and
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,
There are some other arguments for the view that cultural traits are generally
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.
Finally, there are various problems arising from conflict or competition. E.g.,
Developing what I said earlier about ‘spheres of activity’, I suggest we should
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!