Let’s Take The Cult out of Cultural Evolution

This is going to be a long haul.  I am going to demystify and interrogate Alex Mesoudi’s Pursuing Darwins curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution http://m.pnas.org/content/114/30/7853.full.pdf  ; not because I have anything against Mesoudi, I like and admire him, but because the paper, and particularly its introduction, is a convenient compendium of the basic errors inherent in any attempt to produce a Darwinian model of evolution in which the replicators, and there must be replicators for it to be Darwinian (see below on (Boyd, 2005)), are fatally underspecified.

I have in the last couple of days read two papers which are exemplary for any of us who attempt to write anything that counts as science.  The first was Language Evolution in the Lab: The Case of Child Learners by Limor Raviv and Inbal Arnon https://mindmodeling.org/cogsci2016/papers/0289/index.html and the second was Evolutionary biologists identify non-genetic source of species variability  https://phys.org/news/2017-08-evolutionary-biologists-non-genetic-source-species.amp  .  The first demonstrates, and not being a linguist I put this in very general terms to avoid solecism, the entropic effects of an iterated language learning experiment.  Three variables are used, colour, icon type and plurality.  All terms and methodology are well defined , the statistical analysis properly refutable, and the conclusion is that in both adults and children iterative transmission increased learning ability by increasing underspecification, but that with children there was no increase in structure, though there was with adults.

This is an exemplary paper by two young scientists, highly intelligent and operating within the limits of a productive discipline.  I make this point because so many post-doctoral papers in the field Mesoudi addresses, though appearing to be derived from a productive discipline, actually exhibit a compulsive indiscipline.  http://theconversation.com/why-does-culture-sometimes-evolve-via-sudden-bursts-of-innovation-51092  is typical of this genre.

The second example is at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/284/1860/20171018 .  It is a paper of depth and significance by a biologist who has been studying African cichlid fish for 20 years, has been frustrated by the failure to account for differences in cranial structure by genes alone, and has done experiments involving both genetic and behavioural manipulation to show that the genetically derived gaping behaviour of the larvae of some cichlid species leads to non-genetically derived, developmental cranial variation.

Both these papers are within the Darwinian collective, though the first makes no explicit reference to evolution.  I cite them as beacons, in this world of “alternative facts”, of the kind of honest rigour that we should, and must expect of all scientific writing.

I now come to Pursuing Darwins curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution by Alex Mesoudi of the Department of Biosciences, University of Exeter.  This again is a highly intelligent and cogent account of exactly what it says on the tin.  It is in this sense that it is exemplary, and so I want to do what I did in the previous post with Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, subject the opening propositions to detailed analysis.  This is the first:

Both genetic and cultural evolution can be described as systems of inherited variation that change over time in response to processes such as selection, migration, and drift.

This is true; genetic and cultural evolution can be so described.  But is the description accurate?  First, what is it that “chang[es] over time?  According to the syntax, it’s the system that changes.  This means that genetic evolution is a system that changes over time.  Well of course it does, as does everything in the universe.  But that is not the proximate meaning of the statement, which is that the system of Darwinian evolution, its systematic irreducible structure, changes over time.  Now though many would wish that this were the case, and work hard to make it so (change into the New Evolutionary Synthesis for instance), it is not the case.  The systematic statement of the minimal components of Darwinian evolution, observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors may change in superficial linguistic particulars [this one is a maximal tweet], but  at the level of compositionality it is uncompromisingly stable.  Thus, put simply, that bit of Mesoudi’s statement is untrue.

Next, “system of inherited variation”; undoubtedly so, both genetic and cultural evolution are systems of inherited variation.  But so would they be in a Cartesian universe where no evolution took place, but instead over the aeons a creator deity personally manipulated variation in the hominin germline at the point of fertilisation; and personally guided the hands, via the brain, to effect every minute variation in flint technology, the Large Hadron Collider and so on.  Here Mesoudi’s encapsulation of evolution is correct, but also allows for all sorts of woo-woo notions such as group selection (for a forensic analysis of which see (Pinker, 2012)).

Mesoudi continues:

Appropriate differences between genetic and cultural change are taken seriously, such as the possibility in the latter of nonrandomly guided variation or transformation, blending inheritance, and one-to-many transmission. This idea is the basic premise of cultural evolution: Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.

Before I start in on this I must acknowledge a debt to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock (Riskin, 2016), which among many excellences gives an exhaustive history of what is meant by Cartesian.  Very basically Descartes divided human beings into two parts, brute automaton on one side, rational soul on the other; and across the spiritual barrier, the eternal dislocation between the two it was in Descartes’ opinion the pineal gland that provided a makeshift one-way soul to body valve, but that is a small detail.

Mesoudi, and all that he represents, writes in this Weismannean (see Rifkin) tradition, where cultural evolution is represented by rationalist abstractions, traits, behaviours, biases, altruism, eusociality; and human beings are merely statistical loci, a bit like genes, within the actual evolving entity, the group.  The ultimate trajectory leads to a hypothesis where such exclusively  as-by-definition “human” proclivities as morality, imagination and creativity can be represented as osmotically, almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of nature and indeed the universe.  Once separated, these proclivities can be labelled (always by extremely underspecified verbal equivalents — I’ll come back to Peter Richerson equating, for statistical manipulation, “modernity” with “owning a television set”).   Once labelled, “modernity” for instance can be linked, verbally if in no other way, to a variable in a computer programme.  After the computer has done its algebraic work (and it is inside the computer that the validation as “science” takes place), conclusions are drawn.  These conclusions are invariably in one way, forgive me, totally fucking obvious in the first place, and in another way patently untrue , such as “tolerance of homosexuality equates with modernity”.

With that in mind I will anatomise the paragraph above, which I’ll repeat here for convenience.

Appropriate differences between genetic and cultural change are taken seriously, such as the possibility in the latter of nonrandomly guided variation or transformation, blending inheritance, and one-to-many transmission. This idea is the basic premise of cultural evolution: Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.

What is the intention of the first word, “appropriate”, why not just differences?  I think the word is meant to infer “inherent” or “inevitable”, but cryptically means “appropriate to the Cartesian project”.  No scientific concept of evolution will do this, so the meaning of evolution needs to be altered into something more “appropriate”.  And here it comes, straight away, “nonrandomly guided variation”.   All genetic variation is of course non-random, given its context of replication with fidelity in the environment of genes, chromosomes with their huge complexity of epigenetic processes, the cell, the organ, the body, the extended phenotype, the world, the universe.  One nucleotide base amiss is a random effect, but it has no place in evolutionary theory until it is further expressed and selected; as Dawkins affirmed long ago in The Extended Phenotype.  But genetic variation is not “guided”, not at least until there is some credible account of who or what is doing the guiding, a reductionist account which devotees of the New Evolutionary Synthesis scrupulously avoid.  Mesoudi does not name the guiding agent, but whatever it is I can guarantee that, when it is dragged into the light of day, it’s first common ancestor will be the Cartesian “rational soul”.

The term “blending inheritance” is syntactically a loose cannon.  It is not clear to me whether it means inheritance of blending, or whether nonrandomly guided variation or transformation blends inheritance and one-to-many transmission.”  I can anticipate someone saying “lay off it mate, English is not Alex’s first language” to which I reply that I have great respect for Alex Mesoudi, who is only reporting on what is the case, the condition of the mainstream of cultural evolution.  Though I profoundly disagree with what he writes in this context, I know he writes English with precision.   This is politic English, the kind that can never be pinned down, is always open to “My honourable friend misquotes or misrepresents me”.  But I am giving him the respect of believing that if he writes “blending inheritance”, that’s what he means, whatever that may be, and blending is the opposite of reductionism.  Rather than clarifying the entities of which you speak, it chops them very small and whirls them all about so they become invisible.  Then you can do what you like with them.

Further, one-to-many transmission is inherent in biological evolution.  If the Homo sapiens first common ancestor had led only to me I would be a very lonely person.  But this is not what is intended.  What is intended is the ineluctable force of the idea which, enunciated by one leader, can run like electricity into the substance of merged identities, the group, and transform it overnight.  It is the groundwork for the scuppering of individual human agency within the virtually infinite mosaic of extended phenotype evolution, to put in its place the statistical fantasies of brute mechanism, the Cartesian model of group evolution where the rational soul, as long as it is the soul of the leader, has the status of creator God.

Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.

This is where the Cartesian circle is completed by a bit of magic.  “Allowing…organisms…to powerfully create and shape their environments” is a direct contradiction of Darwin’s hypothesis.  According to Darwin (and I have read On the Origin of Species) organisms, including human beings, have no foresight or oversight as to their biological evolution.  It is the process of observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors that is the process of both biological evolution and, in my opinion, cultural evolution.  Creative niche construction is a Cartesian fantasy.

The term “cultural change” is the ghostly puppet of this fantasy.  There is no doubt that any loosely ascribed aggregate of a loosely described population group undergoes cultural change; change that is expressed, and is perceivable, in beliefs, economic and social behaviour and whatever other dimensions you choose.  But something crucial is missing.  What is missing is the typical local subsection of the extended human phenotype peculiar to the group, the kind of dwellings the actual human components live in, their possessions and decor and weapons, their ritual buildings, garments, slaves if they have them or are them, their chariots or carts or ploughs.  To adequately describe the changing character of any social group — a term that has all the problems of the word species without any of its delimiting definition — without mentioning this extended phenotype would be impossible.

And yet the dogma of the Cultural Evolution Society expunges the extended human phenotype, because the Cartesian project has to be entirely a-historical.  If they accepted that human material culture not only exists, but evolved over time as an absolute condition of the evolution of our human organism, there would be no place in time or space to introduce the magical Cognitive Revolution or the Rational Soul with its cornucopia of exclusively human qualities.  We would no longer have to assume a serious face as they conjure with such mathematical functions as “modernity”, itself derived from “owning a television set”.  If the Cartesians had to account for millions of years of hominin evolution, the initially incredibly slow development of the extended phenotype in the thermodynamic, energetics context of the gradual and mosaic development of the hominin organism, then they would have to accept that the most stable thing in our history is not the exact conformation of our phylogenetic organism, crucial though that is, but our extended phenotype.  Without it, we would still be apes.  That cannot be denied.  But to look at our history clearly does not allow for the sudden miracle of the Cartesian fantasy, the sudden arrival, according to Yuval Harari a mere ten thousand years before the first Australians arrived on the continent in what we might concede were generically boats, of the “Cognitive Revolution”, that which brought to the Homo brain “creativity” and “imagination”, and according to the Cultural Evolution Society also brought to that brain, and thus into the “group” which was for them the irreducible locus of hominin evolution, altruism, eusociality, and an ontological expression of behaviours, traits and so on dogmatically cleansed of any material presence which could not pass unchanged through the pineal gland, an eye of a needle certainly too narrow to allow the passage of the thirty trillion tons of the current extended human phenotype.

Mesoudi’s opening section continues with some more “blending”:

Theories were often literally Lamarckian, with ideas, artefacts, and words somehow thought to become part of the germ line through repeated use (7). Due to this confusion…

“Idea” is a hugely underspecified word.  “Evolution was Darwin’s big idea.”  “I’ve just had an idea, let’s turn it upside down”.    An “artefact” is material and much more specific but I cannot believe that anybody in their right mind says that artefacts have a germ line.  Most of the planet’s biomass doesn’t have a germ line but still sits happily within the Darwin hypothesis— as in my opinion do artefacts, and all the rest of the human extended phenotype.  A “word” is a material element of the same extended phenotype but, over most of our evolutionary history before writing, its individual materiality has been short-lived.

This kind of blending, of an “idea”, an “artefact” and a “word”, compressing and then subsequently slicing the amalgam, is structurally much the same process as the securitization of mortgage based financial instruments, and ultimately has the same ideological backing.

And here is more smudging:

It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a properly Darwinian theory of cultural change was formulated, first by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (9, 10) and then by Boyd and Richerson (11).

Boyd and Richerson’s (Boyd, 2005) take on Darwinism Pgs. 8-83 and ff. is more exhaustive and nuanced than this.  They mention Darwinism, but then explicitly exclude any intellectually accessible replicators, analogous to genes, because they are “entities… about which we know distressingly little”.  This leaves, as cultural entities prone to variation and thus selection, their “cultural variants”.  The circularity of this proposition, that variants might be the replicators of variation, leads to a re-iterative infinity.  There is as well the mind-boggling under-specification of a “cultural variant”, as opposed to the reductionist, and therefore intellectually communicable, gene or nucleotide sequence.  Even a gene, as Richard Dawkins painstakingly points out (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 1982, 2016), though totally blanked by the ranks of his fundamentalist Cartesian critics, is a diffuse notion that needs careful linguistic expression (does linguistic compositionality rise to puns?).  Given these factors, I think Boyd and Richerson’s work, valuable though it is, must be excluded from the Darwinian collective.

 

Enough.  Too much perhaps.  But I do find the success of the Cultural Evolution Society, its recruiting zeal backed by strong finance, its exclusionary dogmatism, disturbing.

All religions in the early stages of their evolution are cults.  They have a containing membrane, and the beliefs and behaviour that pass through it are strictly controlled.  Entry is easy, authoritarian guidance once in is strongly exercised by the application of dogma with punishment and reward, exit strongly discouraged and, if achieved, often traumatic.  I think the Cultural Evolution Society is such a cult.  For cultural evolutionists, faced with the present disintegration of the relative stability of Twentieth Century academia and its cross-fertilisation with neo-liberalism and the gig economy, the potential life-chance rewards of joining the CES are great and the punishment for not doing so is total exclusion from the field of cultural evolution (I should say here that I do not write as a disaffected academic.  I am a happy outsider who other than as a student has never been near an academic institution and, at the age of seventy five, almost certainly never will.)

The struggle continues.  On one side is Cartesian Rationalism; on the other side is Naturalism, the belief that truer descriptions and explanations come from a monist view of the universe; that we may not know what came in the no-time before the big bang, but everything from then on in can be explained in principle, though never in fact, by our understanding of the basic physical fields of the universe.  In the field of cultural evolution, one that is vital to our understanding of ourselves as a species and vital to our anticipation of the present dangers of our evolved thirty trillion ton extended phenotype, Cartesian Rationalism is emperor and priest, a promulgator of self-preserving myth and an enemy of science.

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