Cultural Evolution and the Cartesian Divide

When I blog I tend to refer to the “Cartesian divide” and the “Cartesian rational soul” as if they were on the tip of every cultural evolutionist’s tongue.  Clearly they’re not, but  Descartes was, rightly, a hugely influential mathematician and, as Hobbes said, a rather worse philosopher, by which he also meant a bad natural scientist.  Here he was also hugely influential, and his philosophy continues to evolve around us, perhaps an even worse influence now than it was in the Seventeenth Century, so we need to talk about it.

To me cultural evolution is what is the case.  It is not a fancy exercise in statistical juggling with scant application to hominin history (pace Peter Turchin) and none to contemporary human existence.  It is not, even worse, a programme for the betterment of humankind.  There is nothing wrong with the betterment of humankind, but such statements as “we must evolve better ways of cooperation between groups and nations” demonstrate the horrendous error of these our species’ self-proclaimed benefactors.  It is true that Charles Darwin illustrated his model with the achievements of plant and animal breeders who accelerated and guided biological evolution by themselves becoming an operant part of the environment that selected heritable traits over generations of dogs, horses, cows or wheat.  But the realisation that some of our con-specifics wish to do the same with heritable human traits is a little terrifying.  These people misconceive the nature of cultural evolution, seeing themselves not as infinitesimal quanta in the mix, but as the Enthroned Ones, guiding and controlling the evolution of our species, praise the Lord.

Which brings us to the Cartesian divide, with Darwin, and me and like-minded monist naturalists on one side, and the Cartesian dualists on the other.  And this divide is an actual categorical difference between two evolved epistemological orders, each with a history, a phylogeny, going back millennia at least.  That’s the thing about cultural evolution; once you start treating it as the history not only of our species but of all hominins, it ceases to be a backwater of academia, and attains deep significance.  Our evolved culture, e.g. the smartphone, is a major part of what we are at this moment.  Smartphones bring about change in our behavioural traits which themselves continue a history, a phylogeny; in just the same manner as spiders’ webs brought about a change in the behavioural traits, varied, of various kinds of web-weaving spider.

But those on the other side of the divide, the Cartesian Dualists, will have none of this, and this in a nutshell is the history of the evolved behavioural trait which they carry.

Descartes, when he said “Cogito, ergo sum”, was not, as I had always assumed, looking for an axiom to prove his own existence.  (For the following I rely heavily on The Restless Clock (Riskin, 2016), though Jessica Riskin is of course not responsible for any errors I may make.)

Descartes lived in an age that was fascinated by automata, mechanical models of human beings which functioned as if they were alive.  Such androids (a word coined at the end of the 17th Century) themselves had a long history.  Medieval clocks would on the hour enact the Last Judgement, and monks made out of wood and leather would bless and pray.  In monoculturally Catholic medieval Europe, when humans were thought to have three souls, substance and spirit were indissolubly mixed ­­— thus the absolute need for the resurrection of the whole body, throughout which the three souls were dissipated, at the Final Trump.  But Protestants after the Reformation not only discounted the fusion of body and spirit, but tried to extirpate such notions by parading religious automata in town squares and bashing them to pieces to reveal their fraud-producing mechanisms.  The vegetative and sensitive souls were also ditched, leaving just the rational soul, which was not, for Protestant theologians, suffused through the body, not even contained by it, but independent of it and continued through eternity after the “lifeless lump” was consigned to the cold clay.  By Descartes’ day the big question engendered by this divorce of body and soul was this.  Was the body in fact just an automaton, with no more sense and feeling than the increasingly sophisticated androids that were emerging, along their own evolutionary path, at the time?  Some believed that without a rational soul animals were entirely without consciousness, and one philosopher notoriously kicked his pregnant greyhound and affirmed that the yelp it emitted did not signify pain, merely an automated response.

In this scenario, the rational soul was something entirely separable from, and therefore exterior to, the body.  Descartes located it as being very closely associated with the Christian God.  It was an entirely independent entity which actuated the mere automaton of the human body but was not contained by it.  Being himself part of the cultural mainstream of a scientific society he had to propose a material nexus between the realm of God and the mechanism of the body, and this nexus he, somewhat trivially and notoriously, placed in the pineal gland.

But a significant thing is that he located the rational soul alongside God; and then attributed to it the God-like faculties of creativity, moral direction, imagination, and every other quality which, he thought, definitively separates man from the rest of nature across an enormous gulf.

Step forward the luminaries of the Cultural Evolution Society, smile at the cameras and take a bow.

And consider the aims of the Templeton Foundation which finances the CES Consensual Model: “The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will”.

What have we here?  Complexity and evolution are on one side of the Cartesian divide, and the rest of the list on the other.

“The John Templeton Foundation aims to advance human well-being by supporting research on the Big Questions, and by promoting character development, individual freedom, and free markets.”

I assume that it is self-evident that what the Templeton Foundation sees, and disproportionately finances, as the proper study of mankind, is the study of the Cartesian rational soul.

But, you might say, they are scientific and up-to-date, they want also to study Darwinian evolution, they are quite happy with that.

A technique the CIA used in the Cold War and no doubt still does was to fund left-wing and anti-colonial or anti-imperialist cultural outlets rather than suppress them. The CIA also covertly funds academics.  It is a way of domesticating them, of bringing them under comfortable and voluntary control without such a connection being apparent to the public gaze.  The Templeton Foundation uses the same kind of influence.  It is quite, well, moderately happy with evolution as applied to animals, plants, and all other forms of life.  It is intransigently opposed to Darwinism being applied to human beings.  That would obviate the possibility of all our uniquely human qualities originating in God and arriving within our organisms by the agency of the rational soul, not necessarily through the pineal gland, but… whatever.

For the Templeton Foundation, actual Darwinian evolution, applied to human beings, would obviate the necessity of any supernatural agent of unique humanity.  They know that to a lot of scientists religion is not necessary as a description of anything in the material universe.  On the other hand, religion has always had to modify, reform and adapt its tenets as a result of scientific progress — the heliocentric planetary system, the process of conception, evolution.  It is an imbalanced, asymmetric situation, with science owing nothing to religion and religion constantly, for its own survival, conceding development space to science.  But in a country like America, increasingly prey to irrationality and superstition, to extreme policy and religious fundamentalism, there is much opportunity to regain the development space previously conceded to science.  Humanity can be divorced from the natural world if enough money is poured into academia to make it happen.  The human automaton can be made once again the creature of the rational soul; not indefinitely, the fraud will be exposed in the end, but for a time.  And thus we have absurdities like group selection, where the rational souls of “leaders” can sway the development of whole cultures, and distributed agency, as in the genetics of biological evolution, is removed in favour of selection among competing groups.

But at the Jena conference of the CES green shoots of actual Darwinism began to emerge (as opposed to the twisted, impotent spectre of Darwinism that is the Consensual Model).  In a Darwinian model, all human culture evolves as an obligate symbiosis of organism and extended phenotype.  Replicators certainly exist in the extended human phenotype, but they are the kind of replicators that can only be modelled, described, explained in the context of contemporary scientific understanding.

In a tweet today @rlmcelreath links to Richard Thaler’s blog , from which I quote:

Even among economists, there is much dissent. Look at the work of Vernon Smith, another Nobel laureate in economics, whose experimental economics has pushed us into a recognition that the errors or imperfections of individual decisionmaking need not result is poor outcomes — if the institutional structure is good. Smith has carried on the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment which emphasized time and again the compatibility of imperfect men and outcomes that embody far more “intelligence” than any of them have as individuals.


The underlined bit will seem to neo-Cartesians to validate group selection.  But it does no such thing.  It suggests that that there is much more to the space-time continuum across which culture evolves than what is confined in the human skull, and we must look at the material conditions of that wider material space (read Carlo Rovelli if this sounds mystical, it’s not), to which every human brain is connected and through which every human brain is correlated, if we are to understand how actual evolution, observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors , can apply to our culture.

I am off to Catalunya for a couple of weeks cycling and discussion about the evolution of the nation state.  So far I’ve spent a lot of time slagging off the Consensual Model.  When I get back I will aim to blog a synthesis of the central chapters describing an alternative, Darwinian model of hominin evolution as an obligate symbiosis of organism and extended phenotype.  But that is a few glasses of tinto and a few plates of mar y montaňas away.


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