Saturday, 24 March 2012

Charles Darwin on cultural evolution

Darwin himself understood that culture evolves - writing in 1871:

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

The passage this quote comes from is of historical interest. Here it is in full:

The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the re-duplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth. The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable. The letter m in the word am, means I; so that in the expression I am, a superfluous and useless rudiment has been retained. In the spelling also of words, letters often remain as the rudiments of ancient forms of pronunciation. Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together. We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct. As Max Muller has well remarked:- "A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue." To these more important causes of the survival of certain words, mere novelty and fashion may be added; for there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things. The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.


  1. The Science of Cultural Evolution? Where is the mechanism, laws, sophisticated theory beyond pseudoscience and narrative? We need metanarrative and mechanism that underpins culture not some grubby and lazy 'cut and paste' from the neo-Darwinian perspective and placed on top of culture. Seeing as we are throwing quotes around Darwin also said that "natural selection is much diminished in civlised societies" and "nature for the good of the organism, culture for man's fancy."

    Don't forget (and you clearly have Tim) that the central question about nature then and since was about design, or the illusion of design. Humans design, consciously design with foresight and that is something natural selection simply doesn't have. Read The Extended Phenotype (p.112) and Dawkins himself lists 5 reasons why memes can never be thought of as genes.

    What you have is a desire to pull together culture evolution (actually the historical process of change is 'cultural expression' not all kinds of change are 'evolution')into the same rubric and logic of natural evolution and all you have are words, and lots of them. Memeplex, phylomemetics, etc. The goal is moving towards clarity not swamping the reader in needless confusion.

    We're almost 154 years after Darwin and there have been 10+ schools of thought that have tried to (neo)Darwinise culture and they have all failed to generate an accepted theory of culture. Every one. Beneath the veneer of memetics, indeed any particulate understanding of culture, is nothing and to maintain interest you need to get more creative with words because there is no mechanism, law and/or topology to bind it all together.

    There is no Journal of Memetics anymore, I mean, not even an online journal in this day and age, but at least you have your blog. Keep the faith Tim, because you'll need it.

    1. Many scientists do accept cultural evolution. Among those working in the field the acceptance rate approaches 100%. It is true that there's still some controversy over the topic over 150 years after Darwin. It might seem as though the evolution revolution is less than half-way through - looking at the current level of understanding of the topic.

      However, now we have the internet, conceptual progress in the field should start to go faster.

  2. I think all of the scientist have culture's idk if they do.

  3. Whether Darwin bought into cultural evolution completely or not, in The Descent of Man he clearly alludes to it much of the time. Cultural evolution is an obvious truth made apparent by recent writers such as Dawkins, Dennett, and many others. With close observation, mechanisms of adaptation are apparent and the anonymous fellow above clearly is not well read on the subject. The recent science of mirror neurons provides a clear picture of how cultures might evolve. Tim, you are right on, and with the internet and AI cultural evolution as a science becomes essential.