Sunday, September 04, 2005

Groups, Price and Culture   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2005 02:12:00 AM

My post below where I refer to the distinction between evoked and epidemiological aspects of culture prompted me to do some reading on the topic of group selection because of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd's work on evolutionary anthropology where they appeal to it in the context of humans (as hinted at by David). Though Richerson and Boyd (alone with Joe Heinrich) use mathematical models derived from from evolutionary biology and genetics they are concerned with culture, specifically in its epidemiological forms ("meme-plexes," though they might object to the use of that term because of their issues with memetics). I'm still chewing on what I think about all this, but I thought I would point you to two interesting papers, George Price's Contribution to Evolutionary Genetics, and for the more humanistically oriented, Death of an Altruist (the altruist being George Price). Also, I've noted before, Andrew Brown's The Darwin Wars is really all about George Price. Specifically in relation to Richerson and Boyd they have a new book out, Not by Genes Alone, which is a distillation of their numerous papers. I read this book a few months back but didn't think much about it until recently, but two papers, Built For Speed, Not for Comfort: Darwinian Theory and Human Culture and Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation, come close to hitting most of the themes laid out in Not by Genes Alone. Of course, I must point out David's multiple posts related to group selection, Defining Group Selection: The Price Equation, Group Selection (oh, not again!), CULTURAL EVOLUTION BY GROUP SELECTION and Group Selection can work...just. Since many of you are new readers (hopefully) some of David's older posts might be fresh to you....

Related: Cognitive anthropologists Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber serve as a counterpoint triumvirate who emphasize evoked culture. While Richerson, Boyd and Heinrich would attempt to understand the possible functional1 relevance of different artistic traditions, Atran, Boyer and Sperber would focus on the similarities between all forms of human art which point toward a common cognitive substrate. The cognitive anthropologists wish to characterize the physiology of the body while the evolutionary anthropologists are more interested in the character and transmission of the "parasites." Interestingly for a group of anthropologists who are skeptical of memes (from different perspectives) all of the researchers I have linked to above are quite free with their publications in PDF form.

Relevance: Some of you might be curious what application studying evolutionary and cognitive anthropology might have. Three words: understanding terrorist networks. We need to decompose the human universal features of the networks and their specific epidemiologically distinctive characteristics.

1 - They aren't naive functionalists actually, they make a point that evolutionary anthropology is a good way to explain maladaptation, but in comparison to the cognitive anthropologists they are far more open to functionalist-adaptational hypotheses.