Monday, July 15, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (2): Human Cultural Evolution

June 24
Most of the sessions of the conference were organized as pairs of lectures with opposing points of view, followed by discussion.  Since most of the lectures were based on texts that can be found online at the website for the conference, I will minimize my summaries of the lectures and concentrate on offering commentary and questions.

The first session was on cultural evolution, with Rob Boyd presenting a Darwinian view of cultural evolution and Maurice Bloch questioning the adequacy of such a Darwinian view.

Boyd is retired from the Anthropology Department at UCLA.  He is one of the leading scholars of the evolutionary psychology of human culture.  He is the co-author with Peter Richerson of Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985), The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (2005), and Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (2005).

Boyd lectured on "How Culture Transformed Human Evolution."  His PowerPoint presentation is available online.  His lecture briefly stated some of the main ideas that are elaborated in Not by Genes Alone

The most fundamental idea of that book is that "the theoretical and empirical tools designed by evolutionary biologists to study genes are well suited to describing cultural evolution given suitable modification" (242).  The three conditions that Darwin set for adaptation by natural selection apply not just to genes but also to cultural traditions and groups: variation, inheritance, and selection in the struggle for existence (206).

In Not by Genes Alone, Richerson and Boyd point out that while much of Darwin's Descent of Man was a study of cultural evolution as the inheritance of acquired variation, Darwin's theory was often identified as purely biological and therefore not applicable to the social sciences.  Richerson and Boyd choose to revive Darwin's social science: "we follow Darwin's path not taken.  Beginning with psychologist Donald T. Campbell's work in the 1960s, we, and a few compatriots, have sought to give cultural evolution its due weight without divorcing culture from biology" (17).

It's surprising that Richerson and Boyd seem to be unaware of Hayek's studies of Darwinian cultural evolution, which show the influence of people like Donald Campbell, suggesting that Richerson and Boyd belong to the same intellectual tradition as Hayek (see, for example, Hayek's "Three Sources of Human Values" in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, volume 3, 153-76).  Boyd's lecture at the MPS conference would have been an appropriate occasion for him to reflect on the connections between his work on Darwinian cultural evolution and Hayek's.  But Boyd chose not to do that.

Boyd began by noting that human beings are exceptionally good at adapting to a wide range of environments, which has made them the dominant animal on earth.  It is common for evolutionary theorists to explain this as a consequence of the fact that human beings are smarter than other animals, because they have evolved to live in "the cognitive niche" (as Steve Pinker has called it). 

Boyd argued that this cannot be the whole explanation, because more important than individual intelligence is the fact that we learn as populations and not just as individuals.  Most animals extract information about their environments as individuals.  While other animals do show some cultural learning, it is not very extensive, and there is little accumulation of cultural knowledge.  The human ability for cumulative cultural learning is what has made human beings the dominant animal.

Boyd illustrated this by showing how survival in the arctic was difficult for European explorers who did not have all the cultural knowledge of the native American Inuit.  Being very smart as individuals does not allow us to adapt to diverse environments without the culturally inherited knowledge that local populations build up over many generations.

To benefit from cultural learning, we must ignore individual reason and copy others, Boyd explained.  We must do stuff just because other people are doing it. 

Natural selection favors this, because it supports a system of cultural inheritance as enhancing survival and reproduction.  This cultural evolution does not override our human biology, Boyd argued, because it is actually part of our biology.

I am mostly persuaded by Boyd's position.  But to be fully persuaded, I would need some clarification of a few points.  In my paper for the conference ("The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism"), I argue for two main ideas.  First, a Darwinian account of human social evolution must move through three levels of human experience, so that human nature constrains but does not determine human culture and human judgment, and human nature and human culture jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.  Second, this Darwinian account supports classical liberalism by showing how the free or open society as the most desirable society emerges from the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture and the deliberate order of human judgment.

Boyd's argument for the importance of cultural evolution sustains the first idea by indicating how human social experience depends on a complex interaction of genetically transmitted information and culturally transmitted information.  Proponents of a "blank slate" psychology of cultural constructionism are wrong in ignoring how social learning is constrained by our genetically innate nature.  And yet proponents of evolutionary psychology (like Cosmides and Tooby) are wrong in ignoring the necessity for cultural learning in shaping evolved human adaptations.  Contrary to evolutionary psychology's assumption that our evolved mental modules could support a hunting-gathering way of life, Boyd points out, modern humans could not survive in a hunting-gathering environment without the culturally learned knowledge of a hunting-gathering society (see Not by Genes Alone, 12, 44-48, 159).  Despite the presence of Cosmides and Tooby, this debate did not come up at the MPS conference.

Up to this point, I agree with Boyd.  But I suspect there might be two points of disagreement in that Boyd leaves little room for individual judgment in social life, and he seems committed to a fact/value dichotomy that denies that science can support moral or political arguments.

Consider the following passage from Not by Genes Alone:
     "The sources of human happiness and human misery are evolutionary.  Take social institutions as an example.  Some simple societies lack effective systems of dispute resolution, whereas others have quite effective ones.  Levels of trust, happiness, and satisfaction with life differ greatly within western European countries, quite independently of per-capita wealth.  People evidently find some sets of social institutions more congenial than others.  Since individual decision-making and collective decision-making institutions act as forces in cultural evolution, we may be said to affect our own evolution.  However, we are also the prisoners of the culture and genes we inherit. 
    "Aggregating individual decisions to make collective ones is a formidable problem in theory and in practice. . . . Low-trust societies controlled by authoritarian institutions look much the same no matter their origins.  The modern evolution of technology shows that the rate of evolution can be enormously accelerated, in largely desirable directions, if things such as property-rights institutions are favorable.  The evolution of social institutions is the tougher nut to crack, but the capacity of open political systems to build the interpersonal trust that in turn serves as the basis for desirable innovations in social arrangements is fairly impressive.  No doubt, if we understood the nature of social evolution better, we could improve the process" (249-50).

Notice that while Boyd acknowledges that our "individual decision-making" can influence our own evolution, he also insists that we are "the prisoners of the culture and genes we inherit."  If we are totally imprisoned by our nature and our culture, then how can our individual decisions have any influence?  Is Boyd teaching genetic and cultural determinism?  Wouldn't it be better to say that our nature and our culture constrain but do not determine our individual choices?  After all, isn't this implied in what Boyd says about how we can use our understanding of social evolution to improve the process?  Indeed, in Not by Genes Alone, Boyd speaks about the "deliberate evolution of new social institutions" and how "cultural and genetic processes are integrated in the brain" (234-35).

Talking about improving the evolutionary process implies a moral judgment that some forms of social order are better than others.  But at the MPS conference, Boyd said that as a value-free scientist, he could not make value judgments, because of the dichotomy between facts and values.

In the above passage, doesn't he implicitly make value judgments based on the values of "human happiness and human misery"?  In one of the footnotes to this passage, Boyd cites Robert Edgerton's Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992).  Edgerton presents an anthropological survey of primitive societies to support his conclusion that "all societies are sick, but some are sicker than others."  He argues that our evolved human nature gives us certain natural needs and desires, and that we can judge cultures by how well or how poorly they satisfy those natural desires--such as the desires for life, health, sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, and social status.  Those cultures that fail to satisfy these natural desires can be judged to be "maladaptive" in promoting human misery rather than human happiness (14, 34, 44-45, 57, 73, 83, 101-104, 136-59, 171, 206).  Edgerton's list of natural desires corresponds rather closely to my list of 20 natural desires as rooted in our evolved human nature. 

Does Boyd agree?  Or would he say that his value-free science cannot recognize any evolved natural desires as standards for moral judgment?  If so, then how can he recognize "the sources of human happiness and human misery"?

Boyd suggests that his Darwinian science of social evolution allows him to see that "property-rights institutions" and "open political systems" can move evolution "in largely desirable directions" and towards "desirable innovations."  (In a footnote, he cites Douglass North and Robert Thomas's The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History, which shows how property rights and the rule of law fostered the economic development of modern liberal regimes.)  Does this point towards a Hayekian free society as the most "desirable" social order?

Maurice Bloch's lecture on "Why Religion is Nothing Special But is Central" showed both agreement and disagreement with Boyd's account of Darwinian cultural evolution.  Bloch's paper can be found online.

Bloch is a prominent British anthropologist at the London School of Economics.  His primary sites for field research have been in Madagascar.  He has been much influenced by French Marxist ideas, and he has written about the influence of Marxism in anthropology.  He has also written about the relationship between anthropology and cognitive psychology.  The ideas in his lecture are elaborated in a new book to be published this month: In and Out of Each Other's Bodies: Theories of Mind, Evolution, Truth, and the Nature of the Social (Paradigm Publishers).

Bloch agreed with Boyd in seeing human nature and human culture as shaped by a Darwinian evolutionary process and in seeing human cultural learning as uniquely human.  But while Boyd accepted the evolutionary explanation of religion advanced by cognitive scientists like Pascal Boyer, Bloch argued that religious belief manifested a uniquely human capacity for imagining other worlds rooted in a humanly unique neurological adaptation.

Bloch distinguished between the "transactional social" that other primates share with human beings and the "transcendental social" that is uniquely human.  Among primates (like chimpanzees), there is an order of social positions that depends on "the predictable achievements of the individual."  For example, an individual chimp holds the position of alpha male only as long as he can carry out the functions of the alpha role in transactions with other individuals.  While human beings show this same transactional social ordering, they also show a transcendental social ordering based on "essentialized transcendental roles" that is uniquely human.

Children show this in their pretend play.  They might pretend to be a teacher teaching teddy bears.  They have thus separated "the teacher" as an imagined role from Mrs. Smith the teacher.  They understand the social role of "teacher" as an essentialized transcendent reality that goes beyond individuals and their achievements.  This imagined social role seems to transcend time.

Religious imagination expresses this same imaginative capacity, Bloch argued.  So, for example, the tribe's ancestors can be part of this time-transcending imaginative network.  There is nothing bizarre about believing in ancestors as immortal, because this is exactly the same as believing in any social role as having a time-transcending reality.  Religion is not special.  Rather, it is typical of the human capacity for imagining social roles as transcendent.

But, then, in one passage of his paper, Bloch says that "an elder can be replaced in his transcendental role through revolutionary manipulation."  Doesn't this contradict what Bloch has said about how a transcendental role never depends on the "predictable achievements of the individual"?

This is a crucial point for the social evolution of liberalism.  Traditionally, moral and political authority has depended on claims of transcendent cosmological order such as "divine right."  Liberalism challenged such claims as illusory mystification to secure the rule of exploitative elites.  Liberalism grounds social order in a moral anthropology rather than a moral cosmology.  Would Bloch say that this contradicts the human need for "essentialized transcendental roles"?

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

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