Friday, November 4, 2016

Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet? Cultural Evolution in Two Worlds

The social and behavioral scientists have just formed a Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution, with Pete Richerson as the first president and Dan Sperber as president-elect. This book review by David Sloan Wilson gives some idea of the consilient happiness – “Four new books indicate that the barrier between science and the humanities is at last breaking down” (see tongue-in-cheek-emoji-here) – in store for this new society, of which I am nominally a member (as long as its free). I’ve read work by various of the folks and I like it. It doesn’t quite meet my needs, but then my needs are peculiar, aren’t they?

Meanwhile, some of the work in digital humanities strikes me as being directly relevant to the study of cultural evolution. I’m thinking, in particular, of Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis and Underwood and Sellers on 19th century poetry, both of which have received more than a little attention from me (just follow the links). This is exciting stuff. But, except for Franco Moretti, the digital humanists are skittish about talk of cultural evolution. They’re worried about Whig history and perhaps even the word “evolution” is just too close to biology for comfort.

Moreover, as far as I can tell, the cultural evolution folks, the ones with the brand-spanking new society, don’t know seem to know about this work in the humanities, though it’s been around for awhile. And the triumphalism implicit in Wilson’s review, well, does not bode well. He rather over-estimates what the biologists bring to the humanities table – in this he is aided and abetted by Joseph Carroll & Co. But then, I suppose, his position is symmetrical with that of the humanists who don’t want to see an evolutionary dynamic at work in cultural history nor, perhaps, have the cottoned to the possibility that the population thinking of evolutionary biology might be useful in thinking about how populations of thousands of texts moves through populations of millions of people. And, of course, they've got to stay in the good graces of their more conventional humanist colleagues.

So I’m having a Rodney King moment: Can’t we all just get along? And the answer, at the moment, is “No, we can’t.” How long will this continue? Will a rapprochement be reached before the world’s coastal regions are swallowed by the oceans?

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