Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lamarck, Darwin, and cultural evolution

Let's assume that cultures, in all their fractal variety, do in fact "evolve" -- that is, they change over time in ways that enhance their environmental fitness, and in a way that's analogous to (though certainly not identical with) the way biological organisms do. The question then is, in light of the previous post, what model better explains this phenomenon, the Darwinian or the Lamarckian?

Many people might be inclined, in this case, to say Lamarckian, and it's easy to see why: culture is acquired, after all. Thus, if we take Lamarckism to be simply the notion that acquired characteristics are passed on to (inherited by) later generations, it seems natural to assume that this is the model to explain cultural evolution. But, as the previous post discussed, the Lamarckian model leaves the actual mechanism of adaptive change unexplained -- it seems, instead, to require that there be an agent able to determine what constitutes environmental fitness, and then generate the required adaptation. Still, while that may have been a problem for biological evolution, such a requirement might seem entirely in keeping with cultural evolution, since cultures, after all, are made up of agents -- namely, us. And aren't we smart enough to figure out what our environment demands, and then produce our own cultural adaptations?

My answer, in short, is no. I don't say that out of any disdain for human intelligence, though I do think that we have a long-standing, if understandable, tendency to exaggerate the specialness of our situation in that regard -- in our scientific age, this tendency might be seen as the secular equivalent of the religious tendency to see human beings as having a special relationship to the divine. But our "intelligence", such as it is, and whatever it is, has no more ability to lift us out of nature than our "soul" or "spirit" had or has. That means, among many other things, that we can't simply avoid the question of how culture changes by handing it off to the mysteriously transcendent processes of agency. We need, in other words, a way of grasping how change can come about without having to postulate an agent that can step out of itself, so to speak, apprehend what sort of change the environment requires, and then step back into itself and make that change.

And once again, a Darwinian model can provide just such mechanism, despite having to deal, in the case of cultural evolution, with acquired characteristics that are inheritable or transmissible. We can remove agency from the picture simply by assuming that there are incessant (daily, hourly) microchanges in an individual's cultural imprint, some of which are more "effective" than others and are consequently reinforced at the expense of the others. The changes themselves stem from the individual's daily, hourly, moment-by-moment encounter with the world, which is automatically incorporated into the individual's cultural imprint as fresh experiential content. The "effectiveness" of those changes refers to environmental feedback, and has two primary forms -- one in communicative encounters, in which the feedback always results in some degree of increased semantic alignment (in fact, this just is the transmission of culture); the other in planning or thinking about intentional or purposeful behavior in the world, in which the feedback pertains to the degree to which the change helped attain the purpose. The key point to note is that both change and feedback -- variation and selection -- are independent of the conscious will or purpose of the individual herself, just as they are in biological evolution. No agent necessary.

None of this is to deny that there is such a thing as "knowledge", of course. And that knowledge, to the extent that it's "true" (meaning, to the extent that it's effective), can certainly be used to help plan and guide cultural change, including individual change, in ways that are purposeful or agent-driven. But we can think of the knowledge contained in culture as representing the potential of that culture for change, much as the development of organs through use -- which Lamarck took to be representative of species change generally -- represents the potential inherent in a given species. But, just as true biological evolution, contra Lamarck, marks a change in species potential, so real cultural evolution as such, involving the summed result of a myriad microvariations and reinforcements over time and geography, pertains to changes in cultural potential, which is inherently outside of our control or agency. In the last five hundred years or so, it's true, we've developed a kind of meta-level of knowledge, called science, which, (along with its derivative, technology), is a systemization of the process of acquiring new knowledge -- and which quite obviously has revolutionized our global culture, expanding its potential for change by orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, nature itself -- to give a name to that impassive, implacable, indifferent environment -- remains outside of all cultural potential, no matter how potent it appears to us, and nature's judgment is final.


At 7:20 PM, March 05, 2006, Blogger Unsane said...

Bravo for this analysis.

I tend to view the phenemenon of cultural evolution from a Nietzschean perspective, mostly. That is, most of the time those who do not think but adopt insect-like responses to their environments, and do so reflexively, are the most likely to survive. That is, in Nietzschean terms, those who are average, mediocre, unthoughtful and unthinking.

However, these are not the same types which will carry human cultural evolution ahead -- obviously. The more threatened types, the actual self-conscious, thoughtful intellectuals have this capability. But also, such types are likely not to thrive in the social evolutionary context.

At 7:23 PM, March 05, 2006, Blogger Unsane said...

re. the last statement

... which is to say "untrammelled 'nature' is not on their side".

At 9:19 AM, March 23, 2006, Anonymous Rusty Noggins said...

When we say that culture evolves, we must be talking about a different kind of evolution than when we talk about the evolution of species. An orgasm reproduces itself (however imperfectly) then eventually dies. In culture what is the analog to the individual that reproduces and dies?

My point is that the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution is tied to biological things that do not transere in the analogy to culture.

So you can argue all day if you maintain the false choice.

At 1:45 PM, March 23, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Well, though I'm not interested in arguing all day, my point was and is that the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution is not "tied to biological things", but instead is tied to a conceptual difference. That conceptual difference involves a mechanism for the maintenance of environmental fitness -- which is what I mean by evolutionary change -- and such a mechanism has a more general application than to biology or to organisms that reproduce and die.

At 7:40 AM, May 05, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Well, we've passed the 3 month anniversary of your last post, Ellis. Here's hoping C&C emerges from its hibernation!

At 3:28 PM, August 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I guess Lamarck's theories can explain better why we have an appendix, a remnant of a former organ. Or why our brains adquired the actual size as we developed more complex ways of communication, or why our chest lost his hair because of being using clothing (animal skin at first) since thousands of years.
I'm not into biology, it's just a personal oppinion, but I stick with Lamarck's theories, as they are more logical, at least to me =P

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At 2:43 AM, January 04, 2010, Blogger Dov Henis said...

Evolution, Culture And Mechanisms
And Required 2010 Introspection

A. From "Evolution, The Drive Behind The Mechanisms"

For 21st century Science evolution is all about and in Mechanisms. For the present "scientists"
it is The Mechanisms that drive and move things, which is what they consider evolution.

Factually, however, again and again, Life's is the ubiquitous cosmic evolution mode. The origin and nature of cosmic evolution is the origin and nature of life's evolution, and it is evolution that is the drive behind developing mechanisms.

B. Evolution is "attaining temporary augmented energy constraint", per

"Physical Evolution Defintion"

"attaining temporary augmented energy constraint in successive generations with energy drained from other mass formats, to temporarily postpone, survive...", so that the more the attained energy constrained the longer is the survival.

C. Culture is the gear that couples Evolution with mechanisms

Culture is the total mode of responses of organisms to their environment and circumstances, per
"Culture And Intelligence Of Living And Inanimate matter"

The tools of the modes of responses are the Mechanisms, the technologies.

D. And, BTW, this is why "Prsdnt Obama Should Consider An Overdue Introspection"

Prsdnt Obama, his advisers and all of us should internalize that it's not just the economy that collapsed. Not just the financial system-policies. It's the 20th century technology culture that collapsed. We and the rest of the world not only have not yet internalized our cultural collapse, but are persistently striving against basic rationalism, against scientism, to reinvigorate the terminally ill technology culture, its values and its economy. We're all striving to reinvigorate the technology culture with Mechanisms, with money printing plus "tighter rules and regulations".

This will NOT WORK. It will not work simply because Mechanisms do not tackle the causes of the collapse, the greed culture, its mentality and ethics. Present technology culture humanity is conditioned to bypass all rules and regulations on its race after greed.

Again, it is vitally important for charting the future course of our society to learn and understand, to analyse and assess, with a scientism perspective, the evolution and collapse of the Technology Culture and the implications, within it, of the bare survival of basic classical science, of the further comprehension of our place and fate in the universe. Again, it is vitally important for charting the future course of our society to embark on a long course to a new, science-based, more rational, virtual reality culture.

Dov Henis
(Comments From The 22nd Century)
Updated Life's Manifest May 2009
28Dec09 Implications Of E=Total[m(1 + D)]
Cosmic Evolution Simplified

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