Cultural Evolution For Sale! New! New! New!

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).


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “Cultural Evolution For Sale! New! New! New!

  1. I like Silverstein’s protestation in ‘Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle’ that this sort of work “seems to have something of the deja vu about it — as though the century of development of theorizing in the specifically social and cultural (as opposed to behavioral-psychologistic) sciences, anthopology among them, had not occurred so as inevitably to change the terms of discourse for anyone who has been paying attention.”

  2. I take it back. It reminds me of a Tom Waits song. “Never needs winding never needs winding never needs winding…”

  3. That’s right, it filets, it chops
    It dices, slices, never stops
    lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn
    And it mows your lawn
    and it picks up the kids from school
    It gets rid of unwanted facial hair
    it gets rid of embarrassing age spots
    It delivers a pizza
    and it lengthens, and it strengthens
    And it finds that slipper that’s been at large
    under the chaise longe for several weeks
    And it plays a mean Rhythm Master
    It makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar
    And it’s only a dollar, step right up
    it’s only a dollar, step right up

  4. Yeah; I don’t get the article either. I skimmed over it and my initial impression is that, although they have some anthropological works in their bibliography, they are ignoring the work of anthropologists in the past, oh, century.

    I’m not sure exactly what they are trying to accomplish and who they are trying to reach. Are they trying to spread the word to other biologists about what’s been going on in other disciplines? Or are they trying to show social scientists that they know what we’ve been up to?

    Thanks for the link, Chris.

  5. “But everywhere in common discourse and technical literature, it is assumed that norms are bundled into more or less discrete packages we call cultures, and that those packages themselves evolve.”
    Heh heh. That’s hilarious.

  6. But they did acknowledge the problem of defining “cultures” right after that, so props to them for that.

  7. “I’m not sure exactly what they are trying to accomplish and who they are trying to reach. Are they trying to spread the word to other biologists about what’s been going on in other disciplines? Or are they trying to show social scientists that they know what we’ve been up to?”

    I agree – why not ask them?

  8. Thank you for posting this – I don’t have anything “concise” to say about this one at the moment, but its about time somebody brought it up. (I’m a geographer who has had a lot of anthro courses who ran into a brick wall in a supposedly interdisciplinary environmental science graduate program, who has also staffed a number of interdisciplinary scientific committees with both natural and social scientists on them, starting around the late ’80s). I’ll post a trackback from The Post-Normal Times when I have more constructively compiled my thoughts.

  9. “they are ignoring the work of anthropologists in the past, oh, century.”

    But what have those anthropologist had to say about cultural evolution? Not much.

  10. Wow — that statement is really not true at all. In 1905 researchers could still remember the wave of entusiasm for Spencer that hit in the 1870s and thought the Maori migrated from Egypt to New Zealand. Think about how much we know about the development of social complexity in the prehistoric record and the debates about the nature of evolution that have gone on since 1905! Leslie White, V. Gordon Childe, Julian Steward, Sahlins and Service, Marvin Harris to name just a few…. I may not agree with a lot of what they wrote, but you can’t pretend they didn’t write it.

  11. Ah, got me.

    Yes, all those folks have written. But as much as I have liked some of that work, they haven’t tried to conceptualize an evolutionary process in the way Ehrlich & Levin (and a bunch of folks they cite) are trying to do. That is to say, it is not clear to me that E&L would be saying things differently if they knew the cultural complexity and origins of the state literature. Do I wish they knew that literature? Sure.

    But I don’t think that sneering dismissal of their article is quite an appropriate response to their apparent ignorance of that work. It seems to me that the whole question of how we got from hunter-gatherer bands to whatever it is that we have now (which, of course, includes a few remaining h-g bands) is an important question and that, by and large, 20th century social science hasn’t done very well by it. Perhaps we can do better in this century.

  12. BB,

    the question you pose strikes me as participating in a common misunderstanding of evolution as much as it does in a common misunderstanding of culture.

    Evolution is not the same thing as the medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being. The great chain of being went (for ex): rocks – frogs – dogs – people – God. Each step in the chain was good in its way, and each participated in the supreme goodness of God at the end of the chain, but each step was slightly less good than the next, superior one.

    So — I read your question as asking a “Great Chain of Being” question: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states — the last being the supreme realization of a single unfolding principle of goodness, or developedness, or human potential, or whatever.

    This is a fine way to organize your view of the world — lots of perfectly nice people use it — but it’s got nothing to do with evolution. Evolution doesn’t go: fish — bats — monkeys — people, with people as the highest unfolding of a single principle that was but imperfectly realized in the primitive form of a fish.

    Every fish is a very good fish. Every fish is the outcome of an evolutionary process. You, a human, would be an utterly crap fish. The breathing underwater alone would do you in. And even if you could hack it as, say, a goldfish, you’d NEVER make it as a puffer fish or a swordfish. They are specifically evolved to exist in ways you couldn’t hack. mutatis mutandis, the same applies to fish acting as humans, of course. But keep in mind this is reciprocal, not one-way.

    Now, obviously different “cultures” or “societies” or whatever you want to call them are not as unalike as fish and people. even so, their differences make organizing them along a Great chain of Being quite seductive — anthropology has struggled with and against this seduction throughout its history, as it comes out of the same intellectual tradition that produced and was shaped by the GCB (which is an impressively resilient mode of organizing thought).

    Once you’ve applied the GCB — often all unawares — nowadays it’s a short step to mistaking the chain thereby imposed for an “evolutionary” sequence, and wondering ?how did some groups make it “up” the chain, while other groups didn’t?

    But the chain is not a natural sequence; it is a cultural one organized by crypto-propositions having to do with batty notions cluttering our historical unconscious of a staircase of goodness and perfection organized around “our” society at the top. Thus the question you pose is a cultural theory crammed inappropriately into a scientific mode of investigation. There is no “scientific” answer to this question, because the very “data” it treats is hopelessly subjective. Put another way: GIGO.

  13. Ozma,

    I’m aware of all that & have been so for a long time. I don’t buy it as you present it. Nor do I see any hope of thrashing it out in these comments. It’s too big and complicated an issue.

    “But the chain is not a natural sequence; it is a cultural one . . . . ”

    Categorize it how you will, the sequence needs to be explained.

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