International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-1545
Individual papers
Culture, Evolution, and Ecology

Attraction is to culture what adaptation is to biology

Thom Scott-Phillips (Durham University, United Kingdom)

There is a large and growing literature on the evolution of culture, much inspired by the successes of evolutionary thinking in biology. Many of these successes are due to Darwin's insight that factors external to organisms themselves (i.e. the wider environment) can be used to explain, in a causal way, why organisms themselves, and their component parts, take the forms that they do. In this talk, I will argue that Dan Sperber's idea of cultural attraction can do the same job for culture. That is to say: it can provide a way by which factors independent of culture itself can be used to explain, in a causal way, why cultural phenomena (kinship systems, language structures, supernatural beliefs, etc) take the forms that they do, and not other forms. Cultural Attraction Theory notes that mechanisms of cultural propagation typically modify cultural items, often as part of their proper functioning. For instance, when communicating information to others, we sometimes cut out parts we deem irrelevant, and add others, and in so doing transform the information itself. Other mechanisms of cultural propagation perform similar modifications. Crucially, these modifications are typically not random, but tend to operate in the direction of a better fit with the goals and dispositions of human minds and human behaviour. Consequently, cultural items are often attracted to particular forms, and away from others. This is attraction in its technical sense, taken from dynamical systems theory, and the specific goals and dispositions that are causally involved in any given case are called 'factors of attraction'. As outlined above, these factors of attraction play a role in cultural change that is functionally equivalent to the role that selection pressures play in biological change. I will illustrate the explanatory potential of Cultural Attraction Theory with examples drawn from language evolution.

Zen and the science of cultural evolution

Colin Garvey (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, United States)

Evolutionary treatments of religion have tended to focus exclusively on the horizontal spread of beliefs within contemporaneous populations, using epidemiological models as guides. Whether “viruses of the mind” or the “epidemiology of representations,” most approaches not only pathologize religion but fail to account for the repeated assembly of material forms and practices vertically through time. Consequently, evolutionary theorists have had little to say about Buddhism, a tradition that has been concerned with accurate transmission of the dharma (or teachings) from one generation to the next, master to disciple, for the last 2500 years. Whenever a novice takes the vows to become a Zen Buddhism monk, they receive a family tree (kechimyaku) tracing this lineage, stretching from the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, to the present day—in my own case, a descent of 83 generations. “Beliefs” play only a peripheral role in this dharma transmission: instruction by a skilled teacher might include being beaten with a stick, but is nevertheless organized to scaffold the student into a state of “freedom from beliefs” in which Reality is perceived directly. Central to this attainment is the practice of seated meditation (zazen), the diligent enactment of which is said to bring about enlightenment (satori) in the adept, thereby reproducing the self-realization experienced by each and every buddha that has come before. The continued existence of Zen Buddhism relies on the replication of this process in each generation—not on the mere presence of populations of “believers.” Thus Zen has developed, through the centuries, a number of methods and techniques to ensure subjective and objective fidelity in dharma transmission, and these should be of great interest to all students of cultural evolution.

Things don’t fall apart: Ecological selection and functional explanation in social science

Adrian Boutel (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

One reason functional explanation has become less popular in social science is an argument, associated particularly with Jon Elster, that social phenomena lack a feedback mechanism through which effects can promote their own causes. In biology, feedback is provided by natural selection: a traits’ beneficial effects help it to recur in later generations. But, Elster argued, social phenomena are not (with a few exceptions) produced by selection. I argue that the picture of selection underlying this argument is too restrictive. The assumption is, in Mark Risjord’s words, that natural selection requires differential survival and reproduction among a population of similar organisms. It is true that societies do not compete by producing offspring societies with differing propensities for further success. But selection comes in other forms. Even ecosystems, which do not reproduce at all, appear to produce adaptive features in response to selection. Frédéric Bouchard has concluded that selection requires only some form of differential persistence, of which reproduction is just one type. Bouchard’s moral applies to societies as well. If ecosystems can have adaptations, I argue, so can societies. Ecosystems, like societies, are enormously complex systems of manifold components, which are engaged in internal cooperation and competition (and which do not intentionally plan the systems of production and distribution). Like ecosystems, societies persist differentially: some thrive and spread, others shrink or collapse. Societies and ecosystems also become unstable and undergo radical change, without collapsing but with a similar effect on phenomena associated with the old order. These processes can provide the necessary feedback mechanisms to support functional explanations, both of features of society as a whole and of particular social phenomena.