Saturday, 9 May 2015

Cultural evolution vs history

Some wondered why we call it "cultural evolution" - rather than "history".

In 2012, Steven Pinker asked:

Does Cultural Group Selection Add Anything to Conventional History?

In 2015, Richard Lewontin asked:

Why do you use cultural evolution instead of cultural history? Why evolution instead of history?

To me these are odd questions to ask - but I think there are reasonable answers:

  • The term "history" has traditionally referred to human evolution after the invention of writing. By contrast, cultural evolution goes back many millions of years and also applies to non-human animals.

  • The term "evolution" conjures up Darwin's famous explanation of how evolution operates. The term "history" fails to do this. The association is appropriate.

  • History has traditionally been studied as part of the humanities. The humanities have historically been characterized by poor quality scientific traditions. In particular, historians widely rejected theory, picturing theories as preconceptions which could distort the facts. As a result, history increasingly turned into a fact-gathering exercise. This is, of course, not a scientific approach to the topic. As a result, many scientists don't want to associate themselves with historians. The historians dirtied their own nest, and many scientists don't want to be tainted by their stench.

We have the terms "evolution" as well as "natural history". They don't mean exactly the same thing. "Evolution" traditionally refers to change - whereas "history" can cover both change and stasis. Also, "evolution" has stronger connotations of gradual change.

1 comment:

  1. I would add that history is epochal. Evolution can be, but only when specific changes are made.
    Also history is largely a function of writings: valuable meme-space, but insufficient to discover the real reasons for human life over the many millennia.
    Protohistory is a fantastic period, not amenable to history per se, but to archaeology and art history. The usefulness of these disciplines is up for debate too, but, as history, too often ocluded by political nonsense.

    interestingly, Nueroscience has been horribly poor at describing useful things to humans as well, making a few incremental discoveries but having essentially 0 framework for making profound statements about humanity (Hawkins is famous for this point of view). Nueropsych tends to be a demeaning point for psychologists and a dead end for good research.

    It seems that your time may come as [personality] development[/al] psych flourishes, along with behavioral economics and the evolution of medicine to face more holistic approaches to lifestyle and self-determination. At least I hope they'll take that approach seriously, as there's a lot of complete garbage flouting around and fringy/psuedoscience that needs to be sifted through.

    I think history is just a template. And perhaps mathematics can be seen as the rough equivalent to history in that sense, since all the truly interesting stuff happens because people took the ideas in history and tried applying them in real life (i.e. science and engineering).

    I'm a huge fan of the STEAM initiative, and would actually throw in there (P.hilosophy* U.udergraduate N.etwork of K.nowledge), because if nanotechnology is happening in STEM, the worst that the humanities and slowly ossifying sciences like anthropology** could do is learn to emulate those approaches a little less slowly by being in proximity. Science proper has too much clout and financial backing to be truly drug downwards by poor rigor.

    The danger, as always, is letting commercial enterprises get in the way of the march of progress--like the part at the end of those tours where they run you though the gift shop at the end. We dodged a bullet with respect to Ventor with the Genome Project, but it's frankly terrifying and sick that Monsanto has GMO by the balls, and ULA has been kicking America in the balls financially for space projects.

    *by which i mean Analytical philosophy, though once Continental is filtered through the appropriate lenses of Logic and Ontology, it may be suitably useful to bring up the basic level of conversation of people in general-- you know, to the place where now long dead Founding Fathers were in those damned wigs and poorly air-conditioned rooms.

    **linguistics is making the most wonderful strides out of that field, and is personally a favorite subject of mine.