Friday, 27 January 2012

Tim Tyler: Runciman, The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a review of this book: The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection, by Walter G. Runciman.

The book is essentially sociology with memes. The main topic is sociology, but the terminology and explanatory framework used by the book is based on memetics.

The book covers religious and political topics. It deals with feuds, rituals, slavery, Marxism and marriage customs. It discusses stasis, group selection, convergence and the goal-directedness of social change. There are sections about the role of Darwinism in social science, resistance to Darwinism and the history of the field.

To the extent that the book has a main theme, it's that natural selection and cultural selection need extending to social selection. In the book natural selection is based on genes, cultural selection is based on memes and social selection is based on practices. Genetic traits are evoked, memetic traits are acquired and social practices are imposed. Cultural selection and social selection are said to not be reducible to natural selection.

There is a kind of case to be made along these lines. A lot of the work on the topic has been done by people interested in microevolutionary phenomena and population genetics. For them small-scale cultural phenomena are more immediate and accessible than society and history are - and they can be more easily explored experimentally. As a result, there's a bit of a bias towards psychology - and away from sociology, history and the world of cultural macroevolution. It is easy to imagine how sociologists might feel that their field is being unfairly neglected by selectionist theorists.

However, it seems to me that Runciman pushes this case to unrealistic extremes. His rejection of the term "socio-cultural evolution" seems to be unreasonable to me. I don't like his proposed terminology for social evolution either. What he calls "practices" I just call "memes" - the same term as is used for the units of cultural evolution. Using a different term makes very little sense. The author's "meme-practice evolution" terminology seems almost as bad as the "gene-culture evolution" terminology - both represent an inappropriate muddling together of different types of category.

The relationship between social evolution and small scale cultural phenomena is a lot like the relationship between micro- and macro-evolution. Macro-evolution is essentially made up of many micro-evolutionary phenonmena. It is true that there are emergent phenomena that come from considering things at a different scale. It is also true that group selection might potentially introduce new effects at the larger scale. However, group selection still seems to be relatively insignificant - and macroevolution is largely microevolution writ large.

The author mentions multi-level selection in the context of his framework. He discusses cultural group selection - and briefly attempts to sketch a case for it. However, he doesn't seem to present social selection as a synonym for cultural group selection. Group selection - if significant enough - would provide a theoretical basis for the type of split the author is going for. However, it hardly presents sociology with a firm foundation. Without being based on group selection, social selection seems to be pretty similar to cultural selection, and the emphatic split between them advocated by the author doesn't really seem to be warranted.

Next: memes. The book is saturated with memes. They are mentioned on almost every page. Runciman produces what seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable rationale for using the memetics terminology, and then views sociology with meme-tinted spectables. It would have been better if he had used it to describe social selection too. However, I think that Runciman should be praised and congratulated for adopting memes.

I can't easily review most of the sociology in the book - but I can review its memetics. The memetics in the book seems to be pretty basic. Runciman has deleterious memes, but there seems to be no the meme's eye view, or meme recombination. There's a discussion of memes as symbionts, but it draws what I think is the wrong conclusion. Runciman identifies the "viral" aspect of memetics, but then criticises it for falsely implying that memes are deleterious. He also criticises it by saying that viruses are transmitted by a single exposure, while memes may require multiple exposures that act to reinforce each other. These criticisms don't apply to other kinds of organic symbiosis, though. For example, when a lone sheep tastes a pleasing mushroom it might require multiple exposures before is acquires a taste for them and starts to actively seek them out and distrubute mushroom spores in its feces. Taking multiple exposures before a relationship with a symbiont is established is pretty common for food symbionts - and it has nothing specifically to do with cultural evolution, and so does not represent much of a disanalogy between the cultural and organic realms.

Runciman goes on to give some examples of where he thinks that the symbiosis perspective fails. The first example he gives does exhibit the logistic growth curve found in epidemiology - but Runciman says it more closely resembles detoxification that an infection. Through the lens of symbiosis, his example looks more like a case of disinfection. It is actually an example of disinfection by one cultural symbiont caused by infection with another one. There are similar phenomena in the organic realm - such as when bacteria in a pro-biotic yogurt is used to displace rogue gut bacteria. The second example describes a case where one group fails to acquire a contagion from another group - and Runciman claims that an "infection" theory would have predicted greater spread. However, there are phenomena such as adaptive and genetic immunitity to consider. The failure of some particular germ to spread doesn't invalidate the whole theory of germs. Reasoning in this way, Runciman fails to adopt the symboisis perspective and doesn't mention parasitism, mutualism or symbiosis for the rest of the book. This is a pretty central part of memetics and is one of the main things that distinguishes it from other theories of cultural evolution.

However, for most of his applications, Runciman doesn't really need an advanced version of memetics with recombination and symbiosis. He can get by with a version based on bean-bag genetics - and that's exactly what he does.

Runciman's discussion of progress is acceptable. He at least acknowledges the phenomenon.

For me the main problem with the book was that it was dry and not very well written. Runciman writes in a rather flowery style that dances around the point with digressions and only rarely seems to get down to the meat. The book is broken up into chapters and numbered subsections. This layout doesn't really help readers who wants to skim read or flick through the book to find things of interest to them. There is only one diagram. Alas, I was rather glad when the book was over.

Unfortunately, this is not a great book. However, Runciman is one of the few sociologists who has actually got as far as adopting a selectionist perspective - and so other sociologists who might want to follow him don't have a lot of similar reading material to choose from - and so some may find something of value here. Those more interested in an evolutionary perspective probably won't find the book so useful. This is really much more a sociology book than the title might suggest.


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