Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution

In my previous post in this series I argued that, while Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll disagree on the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution, the nature of that disagreement is obscure, limited as it is by the conceptual “affordances” (to borrow a term from J. J. Gibson) inherent in gene-culture coevolution theory. I now want to take a look at those limitations, albeit a deliberately naïve look. I’m pursuing, not a strong argument, but a weak one. I’ll end with a similarly weak motivation for Dawkins’ concept of the meme.

First, however, I want to introduce the notion of a phenomenological gut-check by considering an argument on a related matter that Carroll offered in his recent theoretical article in Style, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” (2008). Carroll is discussing the adaptive function of literature. After considering an argument advanced by Steven Pinker, Carroll takes an the idea put forward by Geoffrey Miller (pp. 119-120):
Miller argues that all displays of mental power, including those of the arts, might have had no adaptive value but might have served, like the peacock’s tail, as costly signals indicating the general fitness of the person sending the signal. Miller’s hypothesis identifies virtuosity in overcoming technical difficulty as the central defining characteristic of art (281). Since Miller grants that the arts and other forms of mental activity, once they got started, might have been co-opted or “exapted” for adaptively functional purposes, his argument reduces itself to an argument about the original function of the arts. Miller’s wider argument about the origin of all higher cognitive powers has an obvious and, to my mind, decisive weakness: it requires us to suppose that the enlarged human brain—so costly, so complex and functionally structured, and so obviously useful for so many practical purposes in life—evolved primarily as a useless ornament for the purposes of sexual display.
I agree with Carroll on this. It seems to me that the purposes of competitive sexual display could have been achieved though a much simpler and lest costly means than the development of a large and metabolically expensive brain. I don’t, however, regard this as a strong argument. The point is implicitly a quantitative one, but no actual measurements are being offered. Just how large is “too large”? How complex is “too complex”? Just what are the necessary and sufficient requirements of effective sexual signaling?

Carroll goes on to advance a more interesting objection: “Even if we overlook the weakness in Miller’s broader hypothesis about the adaptive utility of the higher cognitive powers, his hypothesis about the arts says so little about the qualities and features that are specific to art that it has little explanatory value.” He is now focusing our attention, not on whether or not Miller is correct, but whether being correct is useful for some intellectual purpose. I agree with this as well.

Carroll then recalls Pinker (p. 120):
Pinker’s hypothesis is more challenging. He might be right that humanists object to his arguments at least in part because those arguments seem to diminish the dignity of the arts, but I think many of these objections come from a deeper and more serious level—from a feeling that Pinker’s hypothesis, like Miller’s, fails to give an adequate account of his subject. Those who have sought to counter Pinker’s hypothesis have a strong personal sense of what art and literature mean for them, and they have an intuitive conviction that their own experience of the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.
Again, I’m inclined to agree with Carroll. What of it, however, if many of us “have an intuitive conviction that their own experience of the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.” What kind of an argument is that? An argument from strong personal conviction? This is an intuitive judgment; call it a phenomenological gut-check.

If this general intellectual domain – the biological underpinnings of human culture – was intellectually mature, and Pinker’s and Miller’s arguments were well established within it, Carroll’s phenomenological gut-check would have little value. But the biological study of human culture and the arts is not intellectually mature. It’s young and tentative. In that context the phenomenological gut-check is all but unavoidable. It’s a way of orienting oneself to the problem domain and taking first steps toward more substantial arguments. What matters about phenomenological gut-checks is not what they stand on, where they’re coming from, but where they’re going and what you can build on them.

Let’s return to Richerson (2010) and gene-culture coevolution. He opens the article by arguing against the traditional view that biology has nothing to tell us nothing about human culture. Richerson asserts, correctly in my view, that
. . . humans can’t be neatly dissected into the organic and the superorganic. The products of genes and the products of culture are most wonderfully entangled in concrete human life. Take art styles. These seem quite remote from biological considerations at first glance, nearly pure products of the superorganic. You need the eye to see them of course, but beyond that how does biology intrude? The answer is that art does evolutionary work on genes and culture. Art styles are often characteristic of groups, part of what makes belonging to a particular group salient and meaningful (Logan & Schmittou, 1998). Symbolically marked groups in turn tend to reduce the flow of ideas between them, helping refine local cultural adaptations (McElreath, Boyd, & Richerson, 2003). The human innate fascination with artistic productions, and the compulsion to produce them, probably evolved because of this social function.
It’s that last sentence that gives me pause. On this point I’ll borrow a phrase from Carroll: Richerson’s “hypothesis about the arts says so little about the qualities and features that are specific to art that it has little explanatory value.” That groups differentiate themselves through styles of art, among other things, that seems true. But surely the marking of group difference could be achieved more economically. Richerson redeploys this idea in his penultimate paragraph:
On the other hand, claims that superorganic concepts of kinship have completely [sic] freedom to toy with genetic imperatives meets with rather devastating facts (Silk, 1980). Great art is often the product and symbol of cultural groups as in the monumental art of civilizations. Yet, many a stonemason has attracted a wife and supported a family making high art. The low arts sometimes serve quite raw genetic ends, for example, the use of cosmetics to improve upon nature and lure a mate. Food is just fuel for metabolism from the gene’s eye point of view. Yet the “food is fuel” concept doesn’t begin to do justice to human cookery. Elaborate ceremonial meals are the canvas of human social life. From Mom’s Sunday dinners to State Banquets there is hardly a social alliance that is not celebrated with a meal. Think of your favorite historical novel or biography. The genes’ business of courtship, reproduction and child rearing takes place embedded in great cultural events, wars, revolutions, colonial expansions, businesses or political parties rising and falling, monumental buildings being constructed, and the like.
Well, I’m afraid the “art as group marker” doesn’t begin to do justice to human art. Nor does Richerson seem to offer any other biological justification for it. I understand and accept his reasoning about the role of group maintenance in cultural group selection (which we need not go into here), but, as far as I’m concerned, this argument tells us very little about the arts.

That’s my gut check on gene-culture coevolution and I’m sticking to it.

That doesn’t mean I reject the notion entirely. Not at all. I suspect that gene-culture coevolution is adequate to account for culture among non-human animals and that it accounts for a significant stratum of human culture. I am sympathetic, for example, with Terrence Deacon’s argument in The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain and cited his work in making a similar argument about music and the brain (Beethoven’s Anvil, p. 190). But at some point it seems – yes, seems, for we’re still in the land of phenomenological gut-checking – it seems to me that the cultural component of the process came into its own and ceased being “leashed” to the genome.

This is the process that Colin Martindale (1990) has been investigating, and it’s the process that Richard Dawkins had in mind when he offered the concept of the meme. At the beginning of Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene (1989) he asserts (p. 189):
Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: ‘culture’. . . . Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution. Geoffrey Chaucer could not hold a conversation with a modern Englishman, even though they are linked to each other by an unbroken chain of some twenty generations of Englishmen, each of whom could speak to his immediate neighbors in the chain as a son speaks to his father, Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.
He goes on to say that “As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human behavior” (pp. 190-191), and he goes on to name group-selection and kin-selection, which are standard forms of sociobiological argumentation (though group-selection has a rather rocky history). “These ideas are plausible as far as they go, but I find that they do not begin to square up to the formidable challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution, and the immense differences between human cultures around the world . . .” (p. 191). That is to say, those ideas do not pass muster in Dawkins’ phenomenological gut-check about what’s required to account for human culture. A new idea is needed.

And so Dawkins is off and running with the meme. It’s been a tremendously popular idea, but has failed to find much favor among professional students of culture. I’m not going to try to argue for the meme concept as Dawkins has presented it, nor as others have elaborated on it. Though, with much trepidation, I’ve adopted the term for use as the cultural analogue to the biological gene, my overall conceptual framework is rather different from Dawkins’ or those of other memeticists. In the next several posts I will sketch that framework.

William Benzon (2001). Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books.

Joseph Carroll (2008). “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” Style. 42, Nos. 2 & 3, pp. 103-135.

Richard Dawkins (1989). The Selfish Gene, New Edition. Oxford University Press.

Terrance Deacon (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W. W. Norton & Company.

Colin Martindale (1990). The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. Basic Books, Inc.

Peter J. Richerson (2010). Culture is an ACTIVE Part of Biology, Politics and Culture. Issue 1:


  1. I'm going to go with Bateson on this point. His son, who has synthesized much of his work into post-modern times, points out that there are phenomenological constructs to human evolutionary development; we are the artists. As the world gets more and more complicated, and this is more about the other than human world, humans have the capacity to understand the intricate complexity in terms of beauty. We reflect this back to the natural realm, from the trees as ancient proto-humans, and from the moon as extraordinarily modern ones. The human gift to the cosmos is our ability to express it in art, and that is fundamentally important across the spectrum.

  2. I think the problem you're struggling with isn't so much a problem of gene-culture coevolution as it is the debate between that branch of theory and evolutionary psychology. I've always understood Carroll's position to be that of the evolutionary psychologist who argues that our contemporary culture is explainable by looking at how/where it developed in the Pleistocene Era. Gene-culture coevolution, on the other hand, says there is a constant, gradual, reciprocal change.

    You are right to acknowledge that Martindale is unconcerned with how cultural evolution ties into genetic evolution, but I think that's problematic. Barash and Lipton propose one model for why that's the case in an older (but interesting) book called The Caveman and the Bomb. That's also based in Ev-Psych theory. I tend to agree with Boyd and Richerson that the two are harnessed and isolating one is helpful in a research study, in the end it can't be divorced from the other without great harm.


  3. The problem, Aaron, as I mentioned in my previous post, is that Carroll regards himself as an adherent of gene-cultural coevolution and freely admits that culture has influenced the human genome. On that point there really isn’t any significant difference between him and Richerson, and yet they don’t agree. To be sure, Richerson talks of cultural selection, though he doesn’t use the term in the article I’m working from, but I’m not sure that that’s enough to differentiate him from Carroll. Further, as I said above, I don’t think you need all the internal complexity of human culture to account for cultural group selection; red shirts vs. blue shirts vs. yellow shirts, etc. will do the trick. So Richerson doesn’t have anything that answers to what culture is.

    Both Carroll and Richerson count costs and benefits for human beings, not for cultural artifacts, as Martindale and Dawkins do. I think that they’re right in doing so, though Dawkins really hasn’t any good idea of how to make the meme notion work and Martindale doesn’t need it for what is a somewhat simpler project. I don’t see that there’s anything particularly problematic about Martinidale’s model. He’s got empirical evidence. It’s up to others to refute his model with better evidence.

  4. You might appreciate Franco Moretti's "The Slaughterhouse of Literature" in Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 as well as Graphs, Maps, and Trees. He does something similar to Martindale specifically looking at the success of Arthur Conan Doyle and the literary marketplace.

    My contention about Martindale was not to say his model is wrong--although there is something to be said about losing perspective by zooming out too far--but to say that his ignoring of the biological to focus on the cultural is potentially a problem. Coevolution implies a feedback loop of some sort. The cultural change leads to biological change. That being said, I have yet to figure this out in my own work: do all studies of cultural artifacts and/or changes need to turn back on biology in order to be successful? I would say no because that makes my job a lot easier, but that might also be wish fulfillment.


  5. I’m quite familiar with Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees; this paper on the Xanadu “meme” was originally written in response to it.

    That being said, I have yet to figure this out in my own work: do all studies of cultural artifacts and/or changes need to turn back on biology in order to be successful?

    Not at all. Why would you think that? Over the long term, yes, culture will affect biology. But culture moves much more quickly. There’s going to be lots of cultural evolutionary change that has no effect on biology. There is a process of cultural selection going on that is linked to biology only in that human beings are, after all, biological creatures.