Friday, 27 January 2012

Stephen J. Gould

Stephen J. Gould really didn't like the concept of Darwinian cultural evolution.

I've collected together a few quotes from him on this topic below:

From Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism

The fallacy of Dennett's argument also undermines his other imperialist hope--that the universal acid of natural selection might reduce human cultural change to the Darwinian algorithm as well. Dennett, following Dawkins once again, tries to identify human thoughts and actions as "memes," thus viewing them as units that are subject to a form of selection analagous to natural selection of genes. Cultural change, working by memetic selection, then becomes as algorithmic as biological change operating by natural selection on genes--thus uniting the evolution of organisms and thoughts under a single ultra-Darwinian rubric:

According to Darwin's dangerous idea...not only all your children and your children's children, but all your brainchildren and your brainchildren's brainchildren must grow from the common stock of Design elements, genes and memes.... Life and all its glories are thus united under a single perspective.

But, as Dennett himself correctly and repeatedly emphasizes, the generality of an algorithm depends upon "substrate neutrality." That is, the various materials (substrates) subject to the mechanism (natural selection in this case) must all permit the mechanism to work in the same effective manner. If one kind of substrate tweaks the mechanism to operate differently (or, even worse, not to work at all), then the algorithm fails. To choose a somewhat silly example that actually played an important role in recent American foreign policy, the cold war "domino theory" held that communism must be stopped everywhere because if one country turned red, then others would do so as well, for countries are like dominos standing on their ends and placed one behind the other--so that the toppling of one must propagate down the entire line to topple all. Now if you devised a general formula (an algorithm) to describe the necessary propagation of such toppling, and wanted to cite the algorithm as a general rule for all systems made of a series of separate objects, then the generality of your algorithm would depend upon substrate neutrality--that is, upon the algorithm's common working, regardless of substrate (similarly for dominos and nations in this case). The domino theory failed because differences in substrate affect the outcome, and such differences can even derail the operation of the algorithm. Dominoes must topple, but the second nation in a line might brace itself, stay upright upon impact, and therefore fail to propagate the collapse.

Natural selection does not enjoy this necessary substrate neutrality. As the great evolutionist R.A. Fisher showed many years ago in the founding document of modern Darwinism (The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, l930), natural selection requires Mendelian inheritance to be effective. Genetic evolution works upon such a substrate and can therefore be Darwinian. Cultural (or memetic) change manifestly operates on the radically different substrate of Lamarckian inheritance, or the passage of acquired characters to subsequent generations. Whatever we invent in our lifetimes, we can pass on to our children by our writing and teaching. Evolutionists have long understood that Darwinism cannot operate effectively in systems of Lamarckian inheritance--for Lamarckian change has such a clear direction, and permits evolution to proceed so rapidly, that the much slower process of natural selection shrinks to insignificance before the Lamarckian juggernaut.

From "Bully for Brontosauraus":

I am convinced that comparisons between biological evolution and human cultural or technological change have done vastly more harm than good — and examples abound of this most common of all intellectual traps. Biological evolution is a bad analogue for cultural change because the two are different for three major reasons that could hardly be more fundamental.

First, cultural evolution can be faster by orders of magnitude than biological change at its maximal Darwinian rate — and questions of timing are of the essence in evolutionary arguments.

Second, cultural evolution is direct and Lamarckian in form: [t]he achievements of one generation are passed directly to descendants, thus producing the great potential speed of cultural change. Biological evolution is indirect and Darwinian, as favorable traits do not descend to the next generation unless, by good fortune, they arise as products of genetic change.

Third, the basic topologies of biological and cultural change are completely different. Biological evolution is a system of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. In human history, transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of cultural change.

From "Life's Grandeur" page 219:

In this sense, I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social organizations as “cultural evolution.” Using the same term - evolution - for both natural and cultural history obfuscates far more than it enlightens. ... Why not speak of something more neutral and descriptive — ‘cultural change,’ for example?”
But cultural change, on a radical other hand, is potentially Lamarckian in basic mechanism. Any cultural knowledge acquired in one generation can be directly passed to the next by what we call, in a most noble word, education.
This uniquely and distinctively Lamarckian style of human cultural inheritance gives our technological history a directional and cumulative character that no natural Darwinian evolution can possess.
human cultural change is an entirely distinct process operating under radically different principles that do allow for the strong possibility of a driven trend to what we may legitimately call “progress”
The common designation of “evolution” then leads to one of the most frequent and portentous errors in our analysis of human life and history – the overly reductionist assumption that the Darwinian natural paradigm will fully encompass our social and technological history as well.
Gould said in a 1996 radio interview with Susan Blackmore:

I think memes are a meaningless metaphor
For more on that interview, see here.

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