Cultural Evolution

Dear Reader CCBC disagrees with me regarding cultural evolution. Here’s my thinking, briefly.

  1. Cultures are different from each other and change over time.

  2. New cultural traits seldom arise for well-thought-out adaptive reasons: most are just made up capriciously.
  3. Not all cultural traits are adaptive, i.e. conducive to the long-term survival of a culture in a recognisable form. Most traits are adaptively irrelevant, but some are counteradaptive.
  4. Cultures that accumulate enough counteradaptive traits will either dwindle and disappear, or change dramatically. In either case, the original culture will no longer be extant.
  5. The disappearance of a culture needn’t mean the death of all its human carriers. They may instead become dispersed and assimilated into other cultures, or stay in place and change their habits.

Comments

  1. #1 DianaGainer
    June 11, 2009

    Excellent points. I’d only add one more, for those hung up on 19th century thinking: every new trend visible in archeology is NOT necessarily the result of an invasion of new people.

  2. #2 tenine
    June 11, 2009

    I don’t know how CCBC feels, but I’ll grant one and five and disagree with the others.

  3. #3 abb3w
    June 11, 2009

    I’m not sure about #2. However, I’m of the school of thought that evolutionary processes (of variation-competition-selection) are still evolutionary regardless of whether or not there is intelligence facilitating any aspect (variation/selection/etc.). If intelligence participates, the evolutionary process also may be considered a “design” process as well. As such, point 2 seems moot to the overall argument.

    Point 3 would probably require a comprehensive survey to support the “most”, but seems plausible by analogy to the distribution of genetic mutations.

    Points 1, 4, and 5 I have no problem with.

    There’s also the question of the defining exactly what is meant by “a society”; you might run into arguments from Randites as to whether society is “real”. I don’t have a problem with that… although Randites tend to have problems with my solution, especially those weak in mathematics.

  4. #4 ArchAsa
    June 11, 2009

    I concur on all five points. To which can be added that the spread of cultural traits within and between groups also do not follow a model that can be lifted directly grom genetics. Close contact can ironically mean less similarities, and major influence can come from small diesnfranchised groups (see: Christians, followers of a maligned Jewish prophet on the edges of the Roman Empire)

  5. #5 CCBC
    June 11, 2009

    I object to the labelling of cultural change as “evolution”. Different cultures exist, cultural traits change over time, clearly traits that are destructive to the culture will either not be adapted or else the culture will change — this is tautology and goes nowhere. Species evolution has to do with adaptation to specific ecological niches and a response to shifts in these niches. The physical genetic shift in populations is comparable to social change only as metaphor (and it is such a poor metaphor that even Herbert Spencer dropped it). Here is the main point: evolution is not progress nor does it imply progress or moral direction. To say that a society is maladaptive because it has traits that you find repugnant is not a scientific argument. I do not think you can show that such cultural traits as war and the subjugation of women are maladaptive. Demonstrating that would involve using social science in a scientific way.

  6. #6 Martin R
    June 11, 2009

    I’m not saying that cultural evolution is progress. Come on, I’m a Swedish humanities PhD, I’m such a cultural relativist that my brain is fucking falling out. Technology progresses, everything else about our societies just changes aimlessly.

    Nor am I saying that any societies are maladaptive. Certain cultural traits are. Not because I find them repugnant but because I believe them to be completely unsustainable.

    History shows that subjugation of women isn’t counteradaptive as long as we’re talking about standard patriarchal society. But the institutionalised war and post-war rape that occasioned this exchange isn’t just “subjugation”. Women are ending up maimed or dead. Apart from the fact that it is repugnant, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not exactly a recipe for cultural success.

  7. #7 Johan Normark
    June 11, 2009

    How is this evolving culture defined? Let’s say we talk about the “Roman culture”. It is clearly not the same culture in Latium 753 BC as in Rome AD 476 (but it is still regarded as the same…). What is the unit that evolves? It is just an abstract imaginary entity that is assumed to somehow be connected to artefacts, architecture, etc. We can take contemporary Sweden as another example. We can talk about a national Swedish culture, Scanian culture, academic culture, subcultures of various sorts, etc, etc. Culture is therefore such a useless term and it appears to be pointless to say it evolves and adapt as if it was an organism. The organismic metaphor for culture is old and lingering, hunted by the neo-realist predators.

  8. #8 Martin R
    June 11, 2009

    I was kind of waiting for that question. But I think it’s fair to say that Roman culture was born, survived in recognisable (but certainly not identical) form for a certain number of centuries, that it spread as the Empire expanded, and that it’s not around anymore. Likewise I think it’s clear that Mayan culture has never been seen in Siberia. So I think your objection loses power if you zoom out to a scale level where less detail can be made out.

  9. #9 CCBC
    June 11, 2009

    Can you come up with examples of culturally unsustainable traits that have vanished?

  10. #10 Johan Normark
    June 12, 2009

    On the contrary, it is when you zoom out that the fallacy of the culture concept is revealed. The Maya culture is seen as part of a greater Mesoamerican culture, which in its turn is part of a greater Amerindian culture, which in its turn is part of a greater Shamanistic culture and here we do find connections to Siberia. All these culture ultimately succumb to the grand Culture, a very fuzzy concept indeed that I cannot define as scientific. Just because the majority of archaeologists and others use it is no excuse. They just use it for the sake of convenience. But back to the problem, what unit(s) do you use to measure this cultural evolution? Clearly, the Roman culture was still around in AD 477 but officially it had ended. So, since culture is not an organism (but is described as if it was), how do you define spatial and temporal limits for a particular culture?

  11. #11 Martin R
    June 12, 2009

    Can you come up with examples of culturally unsustainable traits that have vanished?

    Sure, but that’s beside the point. I’m talking about entire cultures vanishing or metamorphosising because of unsustainable traits. The warlike and ostentatious pre-contact culture of Easter Island springs to mind. Or the many waves of invading steppe nomads throughout history that have crashed upon Eastern Europe and then been swiftly assimilated.

    The Maya culture is seen as part of a greater Mesoamerican culture, which in its turn is part of a greater Amerindian culture, which in its turn is part of a greater Shamanistic culture and here we do find connections to Siberia.

    If your definition of a culture is as loose as that, then of course the term will be useless.

  12. #12 Johan Normark
    June 12, 2009

    I did not define culture, my example is just based on how others use the concept on various scales. Do you agree that people talk about Lundensean culture, Scanian culture, Swedish culture, Nordic culture, European culture, etc? If you agree, what is common among these cultures other than that they have historically been categorized in such ways? Are these cultures real physical groups out there that can be “scientifically” defined? People do this categorization with loose or no definitions at all. Please, enlighten me with a more specific concept that is operational on archaeological data.

  13. #13 Bob O'H
    June 12, 2009

    I object to the labelling of cultural change as “evolution”. Different cultures exist, cultural traits change over time,…

    How is cultural traits changing over time not evolution? Surely it is by the definition of evolution!

  14. #14 CCBC
    June 12, 2009

    Bob: No, change and evolution are not the same, nor does Martin say so. He says changes occur and the best are selected, the worst deselected. It is this selection that makes evolution. I say that, if this is more than a metaphor then you must show that some changes are, in fact, maladaptive (Martin’s term).

    Martin’s response is Easter Island and steppe nomads. I don’t want to unleash a huge rant about Jared Diamond, so I’m just going to say that I’m not certain what happened on Easter Island. Certainly those people were still operating within what seems to be an ancient cultural tradition when Europeans first made contact there and, according to some accounts, continued it into the 19th Century. I don’t buy the notion that steppe nomads had a culture based on loot. That’s a particularly outdated concept. Most seem to have been conquering armies of relatively settled people. The Huns, for instance, were organized into a quasi-state by the second century BC. They broke apart (3rd C. AD), reformed, and went on to meet the Romans and others. When steppe invaders invested a new area, say Hungary, they settled it. It isn’t that their culture was unsustainable but that their forces had accomplished its expansionist mission.

    I think this debate is done for now. I will add two comments. First, Martin put himself in a corner by describing a certain chaotic area of Africa in social/cultural terms. Other folks in a previous thread hinted that maybe it was the lack of social structure itself that was the problem. There is certainly a difference between the sort of culture in these warbands and that of, say, Rome or the Maya, to use two examples referenced here.
    Second, Martin referred to “cultural success”. A species is successful if it reproduces, but “cultural success” implies value judgements. We study values through the humanities and that brings us back to the previous thread about whether certain areas of scholarship are just for fun or have more important tasks.

    (Oh, and I am happy no one brought up Jared Diamond and loosed the enormous involuntary rant that is chained to my chair.)

  15. #15 Astrofys
    June 13, 2009

    CCBC: I don’t like that defintion, I suggest the following:

    Evolution:the act or process of going from the simple or basic to the complex or advanced.

  16. #16 Markk
    June 13, 2009

    CCBC Hah? I can give many obvious cultural traits that have disappeared – been selected against in different environment if you will. How about slavery? How about unitary Christianity? How about Mosques in northern Spain? How about polygamy in the Mormon church? How about all the disappearing languages? What is so hard to understand?

    “Culture” is a word we use in English to denote a clustering technique. People who share some base of knowledge – of ways to interact, of ways to do physical things – and actually do things that way share culture if we agree they do. That cluster of things and people can be loose or very tight.

    Cultural success in this sense implies that this cluster stays around as a recognizable entity. It implies nothing about morality unless you want it to. These are fuzzy concepts but nothing far out there.

  17. #17 CCBC
    June 14, 2009

    Well, markk, I don’t think much of your examples — most of these changes were imposed from outside (mosques in Spain? come on!), Christianity was riven into sects from the beginning, and we still have slavery — but you’re missing the important distinction: what cultural aspects have been selected against because they were maladaptive? Cultural selection is an important study but it’s young yet. Scholars studying cultural selection avoid terms like “success”, “fitness”, and so on. They are still at the stage of figuring out the mechanics of simple choices — how do societies change?

    Astrofys: you can define words anyway you want but then you are redefining the argument. Martin clearly laid out his argument. Nothing about complexity there.

  18. #18 Martin R
    June 17, 2009

    Said Johan, Do you agree that people talk about Lundensean culture, Scanian culture, Swedish culture, Nordic culture, European culture, etc? If you agree, what is common among these cultures other than that they have historically been categorized in such ways?

    I certainly agree that people talk that way, but that’s not the sense in which I use the word here.

    People do this categorization with loose or no definitions at all. Please, enlighten me with a more specific concept that is operational on archaeological data.

    It’s good to see that we appear to agree that it doesn’t matter whether the culture-defining traits are material or mental. After all, to make certain pieces of material culture you need certain ideas, and many archaeologists will argue that the material culture around you will also influence the ideas you carry.

    So, what’s my definition of “a culture”? The last time I thought about it was while reading David Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology, which is largely pretentious gibberish. Anyway, Clarke says something along the lines of a culture being an entity on the scale level where clustering is strongest. And cultures have spatial extent. Neither Scanian culture nor European culture would cut it: one is too similar to its surroundings and the other is too varied internally.

    I’m not sure if current Norwegian and Swedish lifeways are different enough on average to merit a classification in different cultures. But I’m sure that they cluster close together and very far from e.g. the culture of Liberia.

  19. #19 Martin R
    June 17, 2009

    Evolution:the act or process of going from the simple or basic to the complex or advanced.

    That’s not how biologists think about evolution. Darwin didn’t, for example. Many species have evolved into radically simplified creatures. Natural selection doesn’t favour that which is complex, it simply favours that which works well in the current environment.

  20. #20 abb3w
    June 23, 2009

    CCBC: Different cultures exist, cultural traits change over time, clearly traits that are destructive to the culture will either not be adapted or else the culture will change — this is tautology and goes nowhere. Species evolution has to do with adaptation to specific ecological niches and a response to shifts in these niches.

    This is part of species evolution, but far from all of it.

    Additionally, I would disagree with “goes nowhere”; it’s the same sense of variation and selection as in evolutionary biology, just a more complicated “organism” to give boundary definitions for.

    CCBC: Here is the main point: evolution is not progress nor does it imply progress or moral direction. To say that a society is maladaptive because it has traits that you find repugnant is not a scientific argument.

    Oy vey.
    1) I suspect an element of Plurium Interrogationum for the terms “progress” or “moral”.
    2) When was “repugnant” used?

    Johan Normark: Culture is therefore such a useless term and it appears to be pointless to say it evolves and adapt as if it was an organism.

    It is a macroscopic pattern with significant mutual information between past and future. “Species” is oft similarly ambiguous. For that matter, so is “organism” if you look closely; consider that in the typical “human” body, there are more bacterial cells than human ones, and that without those bacteria, the human would die in short order.

    CCBC: A species is successful if it reproduces, but “cultural success” implies value judgments.

    Not any more than species success. In the long run, “cultural success” corresponds to “having something like it continue to stick around”, just as with biological species. At this point, Islam seems to have been fairly successful; the Nazis, markedly less so.

    CCBC: Well, markk, I don’t think much of your examples — most of these changes were imposed from outside (mosques in Spain? come on!), Christianity was riven into sects from the beginning, and we still have slavery — but you’re missing the important distinction: what cultural aspects have been selected against because they were maladaptive?

    1) Extinction is not required for a trait (such as slavery) to be considered maladaptive.
    2) “Imposed from outside” just means that the environmental pressures of cultural selection include the existence of other cultures, just as evolution of species may result from pressures arising from other species.
    3) Additionally, you’re neglecting that the dominant changes in cultures/species are due to memetic/genetic drift via accumulations of near-neutral changes; and that “maladaptive” is always relative to existing competition.

    Martin R: Natural selection doesn’t favour that which is complex, it simply favours that which works well in the current environment.

    If I understand the math associated correctly, it would suggest “smoothly” would be more exact than “well”. (For the pedantic, “favors that which minimizes entropy production during exergy flow”.)

  21. #21 Martin R
    June 23, 2009

    You can rest assured that I do not understand the math correctly.

  22. #22 Digdug
    October 24, 2009

    There is only one published scientific theory of Cultural Evolution (Gehlsen, 2009 – find this book on Amazon). Let me use this theory to clarify some relevant points in this discussion.

    First, cultural change and cultural evolution are two very different topics. Evolutionary processes can produce change (which is reversible), but evolution is an irreversible transformation of a cultural system. For example, the advent of agriculture represents an irreversible change to the global cultural system, but small populations can change back and forth between foraging and farming.

    Second, people don’t control or design their culture. We have the “free will” to make choices and invent new thoughts and material things, but we don’t have the capacity to foresee the consequences of our actions because cultures are non-deterministic and too complex.

    Third, with the advent of a scientific theory of culture Anthropology (the study of culture) can become a “natural science” just as is biology.

    Fourth, cultures are no more “abstract” or imaginary than are species. Understanding cultures as evolving information systems provides the primary insight for advancing the study of culture as a science. The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture explains how information is transmitted to produce coherent entities that persist and change and evolve through time. Focusing on defining spatial and temporal limits for cultures is just as problematic as it is for biological species, which is not a good argument against their existence.

    Fifth, much of the “cross-talk” in these comments is caused by the fact that everyone is proceeding from definitions (engaged either explicitly or implicitly). Science tends to reduce this problem by replacing “definitions” with “explanations”. The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture explains how cultures replicate from one generation to the next, which explains what a “culture” is. No definitions are required.

    If you are interested in the application of this new science of culture to current issues visit Digdug’s blog at:

    http://culturalevolutionscience.blogspot.com