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Evolution and Culture [via yet another conversation about religion], part one 7 September 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Religion.

This semester, I’m teaching a course on the connection between “Nature” and culture. We’ve started the class with a few weeks on human evolution, and today we just covered the evolution of the brain and mind. I’ve been reading about these ideas for a couple years now, but when you have to teach them to people who don’t necessarily get it or who are just thinking about the issues for the first time, it really forces you to put things together.

Today, I’ve been really trying to articulate better the connection between the evolution of the brain and the emergence of culture, or the complex meaning systems that human beings use to understand and control their social-ecological environments. On a message board I participate in, I’ve been discussing with a few people this process, and addressing again my problems with the “meme” metaphor for understanding culture. I apologize in advance for the stream of consciousness, but I’m really just sort of trying to frame some of this for the first time.

From an internet aquaintence, fh451:

Fair enough – I’d be interested in hearing more about this. It just seems to me that social processes (do you define religion as a “social process?”) and memes survive and propagate through a type of selection process, just as organisms survive and propagate within a physical selection process. As you said, the two are connected; thus, is it not reasonable to say that social processes (and memes) can contribute to physical survival fitness? This was one of the thesis put forward in “Darwin’s Cathedral” by David Sloan Wilson. He talked about certain religious orders (in particular, the Calvinists, iirc) and how traits of the religion contributed to survival. Perhaps far from “proven,” but interesting nonetheless.

My response:

1. Religion is a cultural phenomena, rooted, in my opinion, in certain brain functions, especially the overlay of our causal reasoning and our theory of mind (i.e., imputing intentionality on others); but the meanings, myths, rituals, structures, institutions, etc., are all social processes. To clarify, religion as we think of it is a complex social and cultural interaction overlayed (emerging out of?) a narrowly construed brain quirk. [There are other theories of the origins of religion evolutionarily, but that’s the one I currently find the most convincing from Cognitive Sciences. I can direct you to a couple great articles if you’re interested.]

2. Memes do NOT survive and reproduce through a selection process, at least not in a way that is analagous to natural selection processes. To be clear, it is simply not empirically true. Richard Dawkins makes a classic mental error of misapplying a theory that works in one area onto another area where it doesn’t, in fact, work. My problem isn’t of thinking of ‘units of meaning’ as a meme, but of thinking of a meme as an evolutionary analogue.

At the same time, culture is connected to biological survivability. In a nutshell, our brains evolved in such a way to produce culture, which is the effect of having a group of individuals with the “conscious problem solving” abilities, which is the use of mental models of the real world, combined with language and symbol systems and representations, which then allow the transmission of massive amounts of information from person to person, and from generation to generation, in order to solve problems in the real world. So the questions become, when and how do cultures change? And when and how is cultural change connected to biological fitness in a specific social-ecological environment? What is tricky is that although cultures are connected to biological fitness, cultures do not change over time in a pattern that follows the rules of natural selection.

Here are a few examples of why the meme analogy (as espoused by Dawkins) doesn’t fly empirically:

a) cultures do not brachiate in the way that species do. Indeed, although cultures have histories, their histories are incredibly messy, skipping generations and jumping populations and subject to the whims and vicissitudes of any number of individual egos at any given moment.

b) this non-brachiated movement through time and space is an embodied process (that is, human beings are doing it) and is subject to human agency (embodied human beings are picking and choosing the meaning systems that work in their particular social-ecological environtments and which answer individual questions and satisfy individual desires (not to mention group needs and desires)).

c) and therefore, most important of all, cultures do not exist independent of human experience, but rather emerge from it. Human beings generate, create, borrow, and modify meanings systems to meet their needs and satisfy their desires in specific social-ecological environments, and they do so in transaction with that environment and through the sensory input of their bodies. Because of the embodied origins of cultural meaning production, units of meaning (memes) cannot be thought of as viruses with independent lives subject to impersonal, arbitrary selective processes (as is the case biologically).

d) human beings agentively change and modify their cultures for many different reasons, including capricious and nonsensical reasons. Human beings will very often choose to transform their environments to fit their culture, rather than the inverse (although they usually do a combination of the two).

d.5) of course, to complicate matters, all perceptions and thoughts of human beings are already culturally conditioned, which means that there are cultural perception mechanisms in place before an individual or group even thinks about what they need or desire or goes to encounter or create new cultural objects, practices, symbols, or ideas. This means that agency is always conditioned by previous experience, which is necessarily, always cultural. However, that prior conditioning is surprisingly plastic under the right circumstances. But it is likewise important not to misinterpret this to say that we are tabulae rasae, in the old behaviorist model. There are some brain systems and modules that are hardwired, and our cognitive systems use those hardwirings; brain development and functioning seems to be an inextricable interplay of experience (cultural and physical) upon the hard-wired ways the brain is structured to cogitate.

e) cultural ideas can contribute to biological fitness; but the fact that they do or do not tells us nothing about their nature. It is important to make the distinction between saying that our brains evolved to be cultural, and to then discern how cultures themselves come to be and change over time. It turns out that although cultures are always embodied and necessarily impact biological survivability, the actual movement of that culture through time uses different mechanisms (and further, nonanalogous) to those of natural selection.

f) when a culture persists, it usually is for a combination of reasons, but it seems those reasons always include a mixture of: 1) it “works” in the environment for the individuals who live it and propagate its system of meanings; and 2) it isn’t deleterious to the biological survival of the individuals who believe and live it.

Now on fh451’s comment about Calvinism:

As a social scientist, I’m concerned with the empirical study of social relations and, for me especially in my work, the generation of and movement through time of culture. Or did the author you cite mean that Calvinism provided for the survival of the puritans biologically? Either way, it’s very tricky. Human culture itself is the adaptive product of the evolution of our minds that allows us as a species to deal with a constantly changing environment. On a purely survival level, it is hard to think of any culture which lasted any amount of time that affected survivability of the species (or at least the group): All cultures that I can think of allowed individuals to live long enough to reproduce. The exceptions here are when social interactions take place and cultures compete with each other, as in 500 years of European expansion in the world, when colonized peoples had to adapt their cultures to a new social environment or perish.

Biologically, culture is a survival trait; but specific cultures themselves behave in ways that follow patterns dictated by language and symbol transmission and social interaction, rather than the laws and patterns of natural selection. There is a great working theory of when cultural change must occur biologically, that basically states that there is a “tipping point” in an environment when a culture *must* change or the organisms that live it will die. The problem is that in most social-ecological environments, that tipping point is hard to reach, unless the culture is really living on the edge of survivability (maybe, for example, an Inuit culture? or a bedouin? where the environment is so harsh that there is very little play in their options). In most cases of human society, there’s a great deal of play to work with before the tipping point is reached, and the biological surivivability can withstand a broad swing in most aspects of a culture. In sum, the vast majority of cultural variation is neutral in terms of biological fitness and survivability.



1. solistics - 9 September 2006

I realize that Dawkins has since regretted his ever starting the “meme” meme, but I do have to agree with fh451 here on this one. I think you’re missing the point by trying to explain memes in biological terms, which wasn’t the idea Dawkins was trying to get across.

Ideas (or memes) to survive and “propagate” through a type of selection process. As you point out, that selection process is primarily (entirely?) by “human beings picking and choosing the meaning systems that work in their particular social-ecological environments”. Those ideas also “mutate”, although in a considerably different manner from genes–they mutate by “generating, creating, borrowing, and modifying meanings systems to meet their needs and satisfy their desires.”

The comparison of memes to viruses is perhaps a little over the top, but perhaps not more over the top than Dawkin’s typical comparisons, such as genes “swarming in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots … they are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind.” I don’t think Dawkins ever intended memes to be thought of as “independent lives subject to impersonal, arbitrary selective processes”.

d) human beings agentively change and modify their cultures for many different reasons, including capricious and nonsensical reasons.

Indeed, several of the examples given by Dawkins in his original exposition of the term “meme” demonstrate capricious and nonsensical reasons for “meme mutation”.

e) cultural ideas can contribute to biological fitness; but the fact that they do or do not tells us nothing about their nature.

This is, in my opinion, the important point–“meme” fitness simply means that an idea spreads quite quickly–it doesn’t tell you at all how it affects biological fitness. A meme might be very popular (for whatever reason), and yet contribute negatively towards biological fitness. The brain’s susceptibility to “culture”, however, is a physical trait, genetically controlled, and can be explained in typical evolutionary terms.

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