PLoS has published an essay by biologists Paul Ehrlich and Simon Levin telling us what for in the matter of cultural evolution. While the tone is genial (social scientists and biologists should work together!) and it pulls the rug out from under some of the worst forms of cultural evolutionary ballyhoo (memes, ma, memes), I still can’t help but feel like this is an example of the incredible hubris scientists develop in approaching problems outside their field. It used to be that physicists were the ones who did this regularly (Heisenberg on “What is Life”? Von Neumann on, well, on everything, etc.), but now biologists seem much more likely to do so. Anthropologists, it seems, should be front and center in assessing such articles… is this new cultevo wine in old bottles, or vice versa? And what shall we make of sentences like this:
There is a long-recognized need both to understand the process of human cultural evolution per se and to find ways of altering its course (an operation in which institutions as diverse as schools, prisons, and governments have long been engaged).