Sunday, 28 September 2014

Cultural evolution + group selection = a disaster in the making

Cultural evolution has fought for acceptance for over a century - against fierce opposition from anthropologists, philosophers - and even some evolutionary biologists.

Now, as the penny shows signs of finally starting to drop, some proponents of cultural evolution seem to have got the idea that it is a good move to link the theory to another controversial theory: group selection.

I think this is likely to be a disaster for the public understanding of science. Such a link will cause confusion for lay scientists attempting to understand the theory. It is likely to result in delays is the adoption of cultural evolution. It is also likely to result in misapplications of the theory of cultural evolution.

Linking one controversial theory to another one just risks compounding confusion - and let's face it, cultural evolution is a much more important than a methodological squabble about what accounting method to use in which organisms share heritable information. Modern versions of kin selection and group selection don't even make different predictions. Scientifically speaking, the issue is a bit of a storm in a teacup.

About the only possible favourable outcome I can see is that the controversy associated with group selection might add to the eyeballs scrutinizing cultural evolution. However, group selection is a dodgy theory which adds no new predictions to our existing understanding of science - and it has a long association with junk science - due to it being systematically applied to the cases where kin selection doesn't obviously work.

I think that a much bigger risk is that cultural evolution will be tarred by its association with group selection. Exhibit A for this is the 2012 "Stephen Pinker" controversy. Stephen Pinker is obviously a smart cookie - but he doesn't understand cultural evolution or group selection. However he does know enough about group selection to realize that it is dodgy. Richard Dawkins described it as "A Cumbersome, Time-Wasting Distraction". Not "wrong" - but not very good either.

Anyway, I wish that cultural evolution enthusiasts would put group selection down. They adopted it in an atmosphere of confusion - without a good understanding why group selection was in the dog house. For example, Henrich (2004) wrote in his defense of using the "group selection" terminology:

Concerns and confusions related to Wynne-Edwards (1962) work of over 40 years ago should, in my view, be relegated to history books

However - alas - it isn't as easy as that for group selection to clean up its act. Group selection was driven into the fringes of science by kin selection. It is consistently applied by advocates to cases where relatedness is low - and so the theory doesn't work. It is systematically not applied to cases where relatedness is high - and it is obvious to everyone that "kin selection" did it.

Given group selection's ongoing association with junk science it is just the sort of thing we don't want linked to cultural evolution. Cultural evolution faces strong resistance from within anthropology. One of the many complaints is that those seeking to biologize culture are using naive biological theories, and are doing it wrong - with the potentially significant costs associated with applying these theories to humans. Of course this is a pretty feeble excuse for rejecting Darwinism entirely - but looking at Wilson-style sociobiology, they were partly right - the treatment of culture by these theorists was hopeless. Looking at modern evolutionary psychology they are partly right again - the treatment of culture by these theorists is equally hopeless. Only memetics (and similar theories) take cultural variation seriously as an evolutionary phenomenon - and so has a hope of eventually being accepted by anthropologists. Tying cultural evolution to group selection just creates another opportunity for anthropologists to reject it as "bad science". It's surely a bad strategy which will only hold the field back. Forget about group selection. It's completely unnecessary - and it will just create endless confusion - as it has been doing now for decades. Surely that is the last thing we all want.

No comments:

Post a Comment