Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cultural group selection: not so special

Many enthusiasts for the idea that culture evolves also seem to favour the idea of group selection.

Ed Wilson has returned to the "group selection" camp in recent years. David Sloane Wilson promotes both cultural evolution and group selection.

Something called "cultural group selection" is promoted by Boyd, Richerson, Mesoudi, Henrich, Gintis and Nesse as being a significant force which has supposedly helped to shape human ultrasociality.

Many of these authors claim that cultural group selection is dramaticallly different from group selection in the organic realm. For example, Boyd and Richerson (2005) write:

selection between large groups of unrelated individuals is not normally an important force in organic evolution. Even very small amounts of migration are sufficient to reduce the genetic variation between groups to such a low level that group selection is not important. However, as we will explain below the same conclusion does not hold for cultural variation.
This article argues that "cultural group selection" actually closely mirrors group selection acting on parasites in organic evolution.

Enthusiasts for "cultural group selection" claim that cultural evolution acts to rapidly create between-group differences and jelps to prevent gene flow between groups. The between-group differences may also result in one group having a selective advantage. It is conjectured that these differences are sufficient to overcome the problems usually associated with group selection in the organic realm.

However, in the organic realm, evolution of pathogens also acts to rapidly create differences between populations. Pathogens can also cause between-group differences in fitness. This was seen (for example) during the European invasion of North America - where smallpox alone killed 25% of the Aztec population and between 60% and 90% of the Inca population.

One of the mechanisms proposed by Mesoudi and Jensen (2010) that would act to assist cultural group selection is that migrants adopt the social norms of their new group - acting to preserve group variation.

Migration is also a big problem for genetic group selection: in many group-living species one sex typically disperses out of the group, reducing between-group genetic differences. In humans, however, migrants often acquire the social norms of their new cultural group, maintaining between group cultural variation and consequently allowing cultural group selection to act.
However, much the same thing happens in the organic realm as well: migrants go on to contract the parasites of the groups they migrate into.

Sometimes migrants successfully introduce parasites into their new group. However that happens with culture too - migrants can carry beneficial ideas and inventions that subsequently spread like a plague through the new group.

Mesoudi and Jensen (2010) propose that the evolution of modern corporations may exhibit a form of group-level selection on human culture. However, there employees regularly drift between organisations, carrying skills and knowledge with them. NDAs and employment contracts attempt to prevent such losses, with limited success.

Corporations do represent large-scale cultural entities that compete with one another for human resources. However, flu strains also compete with one another on a large scale for access to human hosts. Just as employees of two different corporations may attend the same Masonic meetings, and the same bridge club, so hosts of different strains of flu virus may be infected weith different strains of warts virus and different strains of syphylis.

The broad equivalence between the cultural and organic realms in this area should come as no surprise for those who are already accustomed to treating culture as composed of rapidly-reproducing symbionts with "genes" which are not made out of DNA.

Another issue in this area concerns whether group selection on culture (or parasites) results in group selection on the level of the DNA genomes of their hosts. Between-group differences, sharper group boundaries and differences in fitness between groups may result in the deaths of host groups, along with the deaths of their culltures and parasites.

However, it is fairly common for invaders to spare native women. Also, it seems implausible that between-group migration rates are low enough to prevent individual-level selection swamping group selection when considering only DNA inheritance. Group selection in the human DNA-gene pool is probably a fairly minor force.

Are there differences between groups of humans with different cultures and groups of humans with different parasites which are relevant to the issue of group selection? Yes: culture acts as visible marker which acts to distinguish different groups. That may make the boundaries between groups crisper, and reduce gene flow between them. Parasites probably do that to a much reduced extent. Immigrants are less clearly marked out by their different parasites than by their different cultures - since their parasites are quite often invisible latent infections. They might hesitate to enter new groups through fear of the group's parasites, though. Similarly, groups might reject imigrants out of concern for acquiring their parasite load. However, xenophobia based on cultural cues is probably a more intense force.

Proponents cite conformity and punishment as mechanisms which stabilise groups so they act as independent units. However, such forces apply mainly within the moral realm - and not to (say) the spread of innovations. Some aspects of culture are more likely to spread between groups - and are less likely to be subjected to group-level selection forces. Spread of innovation is one of the main factors strong enough to produce significant group-level fitness differences. These issues are probably not major difference between the organic and cultural realms as far as group selection goes. In conclusion, the "cultural group selection" enthusiasts appear to be greatly exaggerating the differences between the cultural and organic realms. Differences between the applicability of group selection to the two domians are probably mostly fairly minor. If culture is to be used to argue that group selection is an important force, much the same argument applies to parasites in the organic realm.


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