Culture Evolution evolves in the 21st century


Though we often think of evolutionary processes as either matters of bones (i.e., paleontology) and genes (i.e., evolutionary genetics), that is not strictly true. There are other domains of study where evolutionary thinking and frameworks have been applied. In particular I’m thinking of evolutionary thought in the context of culture. This has a long history, and evolutionary models as metaphors are commonly bandied about, from Herbert Spencer to Richard Dawkins. But the reality is that there is little systematic and formal investigation of the topic. In the late 1970s to the middle 1980s six scholars attempted to change this. First, E. O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden in Genes, Mind, And Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. Arguably the most ambitious of the projects, Wilson and Lumsden have moved onto other things. Next you have L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman with Cultural Transmission and Evolution. By and large both authors have moved onto other things, though Feldman at least still produces some research in the area of cultural evolution. I asked Cavalli-Sforza about cultural anthropology’s reaction to this book in 2006. He responded:

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

His pessimism about cultural anthropology was warranted in my opinion.

0226712842Finally, you have Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd’s Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Both these authors were explicitly influenced by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman’s ideas (I believe they also took courses where Feldman was an instructor at Stanford to get up to speed on formal evolutionary modelling). But they’ve continued to extend the ideas they outlined in Culture and the Evolutionary Process, and given rise to a whole school of thought (e.g., Joe Henrich, author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, and now a professor at Harvard, was Robert Boyd’s Ph.D. student at UCLA). A popularized version of their ideas can be found in Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution . The fact of the vitality of this research program is evidenced in part by how cheap copies of Culture and the Evolutionary Process are in comparison to the other two works. I have all three, but the first two I grabbed at used book stores where I stumbled upon them and immediately realized that they were listed far cheaper than they’d be online, because copies are so much rarer.

41CAhu6biSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you are interested in the above topic, you should get a hold of at least one of the above books. For those with some background in evolutionary genetics modeling, you’ll feel very comfortable (I recommend Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed for an up-to-date take). But today I bring this all up because Peter Turchin has just announced the birth of a new organization, Cultural Evolution Society. In describing the backstory of how this society came about Peter references a visit to Davis in 2014. I happen to have been there, and had good fun with with both Peters (Turchin and Richerson) dining on Korean barbecue and downing red wine. The precis for Ultrasociety was already present in Peter’s mind at that point, but I don’t recall talk about a society for the study of cultural evolution. That may be due to the fact I wasn’t privy to all the conversations, or, that I was rather inebriated soon enough as there was no way I could keep up with Peter Turchin!

I sincerely hope more students interested in evolution will begin to look to cultural processes as well. If you are a human evolutionary geneticist it strikes me as not just something that would be a bonus in terms of insight, but a necessary aspect of the field. For the past generation there has been a emphasis on culture alone, as the co-evolutionary ambitions of Wilson and Lumsden in their original groundbreaking work have been somewhat set to the side. I think that will change in the near future, as many of the thinkers who are pushing the field forward know that at some point cultural evolution and evolutionary genetics will fuse again….

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