Thursday, May 21, 2015

Analogues Between Biological and Cultural Evolution

The question of how and whether culture really evolves in a way similar to organisms is a common one among those who study culture. For some of us, it is obvious that it does; for others, the connection to anything that reeks of biology is enough to reject the idea without further consideration. Those in the latter camp have a strong tendency to assume that those trying to understand culture from an evolutionary perspective are engaging in "Social Darwinism," although there is nothing remotely Darwinian in Social Darwinism (though there is a lot of Progressivism in it).

There are likely others who reject the connection because they mistakenly think an evolutionary perspective is necessarily reductionist in nature. But this is hardly the case. Evolution has created more and more complex organisms; why wouldn't it also give rise to more and more complex -- or at least changing -- cultures as well? And why wouldn't it give rise to something (humans) that could change even faster than biological evolution could manage, if doing so were an adaptive advantage? Evolution involves change based on a variety of changes of the original -- those changes can be random "errors," changes in regulatory regions, recombinations, etc. We can understand these things in biological/genetic or human terms. In either case, something changes in the information held and communicated. It doesn't matter if that information is held in DNA or brain structures.

We are familiar with DNA mutations -- and the fact that our DNA has mechanisms to fix most errors. But DNA can change in a large variety of ways. Genes can jump around. Stretches of DNA can be copied over and over and over and reinserted. Chromosomes can be recombined. Regulatory regions can receive changes -- methyl groups added to cytosine, sometimes adenine -- to turn genes on and off. Etc. All of these affect how information is communicated in the cell, how it is expressed, and how it affects not just the cell, but the entire organism in multicellular organisms.

But humans do the same exact thing. That is the point of this article, and of an article I coauthored with Euel Elliott.We know that humans make errors when they process information. No matter how well an author communicates, no matter how clearly an author writes, there will always be people who misunderstand what they are saying. We have all read books, talked to others about them, and wondered if they read the same thing we did. And there is little doubt the author would wonder if we read the book they wrote. These errors result in discussions, refinements, new things being written, etc. The history of philosophy is likely the history of these kinds of errors taking place.

Elliott and I focus in our paper on recombinations -- or, in Matt Ridley's words, "ideas having sex." Most technological innovations are attempts to recombine different things. Sometimes they result from errors (many scientific discoveries involve errors -- like the discovery of penicillin). Sometimes it just involves an increase in "regulation" -- production -- such as mass production. (The evolution of the human brain seemed to be mostly driven by increased production of certain brain proteins, meaning the change was a regulatory one.)

Thus, we can readily find analogues between biological evolution and cultural evolution.

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