Saturday, 18 January 2014

The concept of 'culture' nominated for retirement

The 2014 annual question at The Edge is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Looking at the responses shows that many of the nominations are misguided. One wonders if they are XKCD386-like attempts to troll the internet in an attempt to attract attention. For example, people take on entropy, altruism, computer science, artificial intelligence, causality - and many other silly candidates.

The concept of 'culture' got nominated for retirement three times, as follows:

As subscribers can probably guess, I am not impressed. Two of the authors raise similar objections. Pascal Boyer writes:

But culture is splendidly diverse only because it is not a domain at all, just like there is a marvelous variety in the domain of white objects or in the domain of people younger than Socrates.
John Tooby writes:

Attempting to construct a science built around culture (or learning) as a unitary concept is as misguided as attempting to develop a robust science of white things (egg shells, clouds, O-type stars, Pat Boone, human scleras, bones, first generation MacBooks, dandelion sap, lilies…).
I think these objections are ridiculous - and unscientific. Living things are diverse too - ranging from elephants to bacteria. However that doesn't mean that we can't have a science of biology - we do, in fact have such a science. It's the same with evolution and genetics - the diverse subject matter involved actually has relatively uniform and comprehensible roots and can be covered by general principles.

The same goes for culture, cultural evolution and memetics. It's embarrassing for me to see that some people think we shouldn't even try for a science of culture. Culture is big and important. It should be - and indeed is - an obvious target for scientific investigation.

Tooby compares the study of cultural interactions with the hypothetical study of "building interactions", saying:

Consider buildings and the things that allow them to influence each other: roads, power lines, water lines, sewage lines, mail, roads, phone landlines, sound, wireless phone service, cable, insect vectors, cats, rodents, termites, dog to dog barking, fire spread, odors, line of sight communication with neighbors, cars and delivery trucks, trash service, door to door salesmen, heating oil delivery, and so on. A science whose core concept was building-to-building influence ("building-culture") would be largely gibberish, just as our "science" of culture as person to person influence has turned out to be.

This analogy has some issues. We do in fact, have a science of biological interactions, called symbiology. One reason we have a science of organism interactions and not a science of building interactions is because organisms are central in biology - while buildings are not. Another reason is that organisms interact more than buildings do. We have a well-known science of brain behaviour (psychology) and not such a well-known science of buildings (though of course some scientists do study buildings). In short, this analogy gets most of the intuitive force that it posesses from the significance and status of buildings in science - and their static, separated nature - and not from the intrinsic silliness of sciences that study interactions.

In fact, a science of culture would cover buildings and many of their interactions - along with many, many other things. It is deep and general - in contrast with the proposed science of "building interactions", which is narrow and specific.

It is a little strange how so many evolutionary psychologists systematically don't understand cultural evolution. You would think that - with their interests in psychology and the mind - people like Pinker and Tooby would be well placed to understand a domain adjacent to their own. Instead, they seem to be among those most confused about it.

As I understand it, the history here is that evolutionary psychologists - like memeticists - have put up with a lot of misguided nonsense about culture from anthropologists over they years. The anthropologists involved usually think that "culture did it" - and can point to the cultural variation that makes them believe this. This irritates the evolutionary psychologists - who seek the shared genetic basis of traits. From this perspective, cultural variation is irrelevant noise that you have to filter out. Enthusiasts for the significance of culture thus seem like the "other team" to the evolutionary psychologists. Since they have spent so long battling bad cultural science from anthropology, they generalize to: all cultural science is bad.

This is unfortunate. Evolutionary psychology has historically studied human universals coded in DNA genes. Memetics has studied human similarities (and differences) transmitted via human culture. Both topics are important ones. These perspectives are both firmly grounded in evolutionary theory - and they should not be in conflict.

Other "Edge annual question" entries relevant to the topic of this blog include:

I reply to Michael McCullough's article in more detail here.

Update 2015-01-06: Alberto Acerbi also responds - Culture: A scientific idea "ready for retirement"?

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