Monday, July 1, 2019

Cultural evolution conceived dynamically as an interplay of forces.

Lorenzo Baravalle, Cultural evolutionary theory as a theory of forces, Synthese, May 2019, DOI: 10.1007/s11229-019-02247-0. Downloadable Preprint.
Abstract: Cultural evolutionary theory has been alternatively compared to a theory of forces, such as Newtonian mechanics, or the kinetic theory of gases. In this article, I clarify the scope and significance of these metatheoretical characterisations. First, I discuss the kinetic analogy, which has been recently put forward by Tim Lewens. According to it, cultural evolutionary theory is grounded on a bottom-up methodology, which highlights the additive effects of social learning biases on the emergence of large-scale cultural phenomena. Lewens supports this claim by arguing that it is a consequence of cultural evolutionists’ widespread commitment to population thinking. While I concur with Lewens that cultural evolutionists often actually conceive cultural change in aggregative terms, I think that the kinetic framework does not properly account for the explanatory import of population-level descriptions in cultural evolutionary theory. Starting from a criticism of Lewens’ interpretation of population thinking, I argue that the explanatory role of such descriptions is best understood within a dynamical framework—that is, a framework according to which cultural evolutionary theory is a theory of forces. After having spelled out the main features of this alternative interpretation, I elucidate in which respects it helps to outline a more accurate characterisation of the overarching structure of cultural evolutionary theory.
Note: I have, for some time know, been thinking of cultural evolution as a force in history; indeed, as perhaps the single strongest force in history. The thrust of this article is a bit different, but I welcome its formulation of cultural evolution as a theory of forces.


  1. If it's a force metaphor, you have to have mass and acceleration analogs, and a product operation, since f = ma. Even electromagnetic force fields have them.

    1. Hmmm... And "hmmm..." again. I'm thinking (just off the top of my head):

      f = cultural change
      m = ambient anxiety
      a = diversity of cultural variants

      Maybe it's the other way around, who knows:

      m = diversity of cultural variants
      a = ambient anxiety

      Do I actually believe that? Of course not, I just made it up. The trick, obviously, is to put numbers to all of that.

  2. This is the way sound symbolism in natural languages appears to work, with the bits and pieces of words acting like terms in physical equations summing to vectors in a complex multidimensional vector space, or even a tensor space.

  3. Also check out Michael Tomasello's Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. I found it the most exciting review and addition to developmental psychology in recent years.