Saturday, 28 January 2012

Tim Ingold - researcher

Tim Ingold is a meme critic. In fact he seems to be a critic of most kinds of Darwinian cultural evolution.

A recent criticism is: The trouble with ‘evolutionary biology’.

Ingold has some specific criticisims - among them:

Secondly, there is the question of what actually evolves. For ‘evolutionary biology’ it is normally taken to be the so-called genotype. Does there, then, exist some cultural analogue of the genotype? Opinion on the matter is divided even among ‘evolutionary biologists’ themselves, as Robert Aunger testifies in his comment
Yes: the cultural genotype is the memotype. It is rather less clearly delimited than in the organic realm, since cultural creatures are sometimes less clearly delimited than organic ones are. However organic organisms do not always have clear boundaries either - for example, consider ants or the Portuguese Man o'War.

the very assumption that information is pre-encoded, in genes or culture, prior to its phenotypic expression in the forms and behaviour of the individuals who carry it, implies that there exists some ‘reading’ of the genetic or cultural ‘code’ that is independent of the social and environmental contexts in which those individuals grow up and live their lives.
Not really. English is a memetic code that maps from memes to meme products. However: is English "independent of the social and environmental contexts in which those individuals grow up and live their lives"? Not really - there are also French and Spanish speakers and English is constantly being modified by those who speak it. This just seems to be a misunderstanding.

Are we to understand that cultural information is transmitted, from head to head, independently and in advance of its expression?
That depends a bit on what you mean. A recipe can be transmitted from head to head without ever going through its main meme expression process - namely baking a cake. However, there's a sense in which behavioral imitation involves at least some meme expression processes - involving creating behavior and then observing it and reconstructing corresponding motor actions. However, it is rare for culture to be copied independently of its expression.

How can a theory of cultural evolution, modelled on the principles of ‘evolutionary biology’, be other than completely circular? Following in the footsteps of other neo-Darwinian culture theorists, Mesoudi et al. define culture as transmitted information (ideas, knowledge, beliefs, values, skills, attitudes) that affects the behaviour of individuals. They then go on to announce that there is ‘ample evidence that culture plays a powerful role in determining human behaviour and cognition’ (331). Culture is anything that determines what humans think and do, ergo what humans think and do is determined by culture!
That argument just doesn't seem to make any sense at all. Culture is NOT defined as being "anything that determines what humans think and do" by Mesoudi et al. - they also permit non-social learning and genetics to influence human behaviour. Tim continues with:

Nor is this circularity limited to neo-Darwinian reasoning about culture. The same goes for its thinking about genes. To establish the genotype of an organism, ‘evolutionary biology’ works backwards from its outward, phenotypic form and behaviour by factoring out variation due to environmental experience so as to arrive at a context-independent description, only to declare that its form and behaviour are expressions, within a particular environmental context, of an evolved genotype. The concept of ‘trait’, whether applied to genetic or cultural characters, at once embodies and conceals this circularity.
WTF? I don't think Tim Ingold knows what he is talking about! This is what an anthropologist criticising evolutionary biology looks like? I think Tim should stick to subjects he knows something about.

Medoudi et al. offer their responses to all this here. They describe Ingold's article as containing "unhelpful misrepresentation and scaremongering".

Tim also wrote at length about memes in his 1987 book Evolution and Social Life.


This podcast is pretty boring. Memes start in part 2. Ingold has the idea that evolutionary biology needs to be combined with developmental systems theory - and various other things - in order to create a viable theory.

The main problem with that is that we already have a perfectly good, highly viable theory that is spending far too much time sitting around not being applied.

The current situation is that immense retardation in the social sciences is occurring - through the lack of a Darwinian theory of cultural change.

Scientists should probably roll out the current best shot at a Darwinian theory of culture across the social sciences fairly soon. I mean, 150 years of pre-Darwinian thinking in the social sciences is enough - right? The social sciences should at least get onto the Darwinian bandwagon. Some of the more esoteric aspects of evolutionary theory can be postponed - if it actually helps with that basic mission.

Tim Ingold doesn't seem to me to be part of the solution. Maybe he has a revolutionary unified theory of biology up his sleeve, but from what I can see, it doesn't look like it, and nobody should delay rolling out Darwinian culture theories on his behalf. This makes Tim part of the problem.

The other thing to say is that, in my experience, most people who claim that developmental systems theory is important to integrate into evolutionary biology often have a poor understanding of how useful evolutionary biology can be with no modeling of developmental processes at all. Evolutionary biology kind of has a "slot" into which theories of development can be fitted. A lack of knowledge of development thus has very little impact on progress in evolutionary theory. Population genetics is the same. We can do meme frequency analysis just fine without understanding development at all.



  1. Though this is an old post I agree with the sentiment that Tim doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. I find this to be a trait of anthropologists in general. But seeing as most anthropology is read solely by anthropologists, nothing will change.

  2. Thanks for the two cents. These days, anthropology is large, and there's at least some good stuff.