Update: Make sure to read the comments, some of them are worthy of posts.
John Wilkins has a long response to my post Cultural Cladistics. Now, John knows several orders of magnitude more about systematics than I do…so he emphasized the cladistics aspect and traced out the misimpressions, fallacies and problems. He begins:
He repeats the usual [redacted] canard that culture isn’t like biology in terms of its evolution. I think it is exactly like it, and that the “analogy” between cultural traditions and species is quite exact. All that differs is the frequency of the various kinds of evolution.
I don’t know what to say to this exactly…I’ve read Not By Genes Alone by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd where they use population genetic formalism in the context of culture (much of their works seems to be a extension of the Price Equation), and I see a lot to be gained by this method. Nevertheless, to some extent I feel that asserting that biological and cultural evolution are “exact” in their “analogy” with variations in the frequency of kinds of “evolution” is like saying that physics and biology are “exact” in their “analogy” with only a variation in specific biophysical phenomena. For example, it seems to me that group selection is far more plausible in the case of culture because intergroup difference and within group conformity are quite plausible. Language dialect is a clear example, as are aspects of dress, ritual or diet. Another issue is the omnipresence of “horizontal transfer” in culture, and the importance of peer groups and the tension with “vertical transmission” from parents. In the ideal I do agree that cultural and biological evolution are fundamentally characterized by the same processes (replication, error, selection upon variation, drift, mutation, etc.). But, in terms of analysis the different dynamics mean that they are often easily perceived to be distinct and require alternative mindsets (which I think is born out by problems when biologists like R.A. Fisher try their hand at historical interpretation).
As for the rest about cladistics…well, to some extent, blasphemous as this may sound, that was simply a way for me to introduce the general issues of perception vs. substance when it comes to culture. I am not serious about a general “tree of culture” analogous to the “tree of life,” but rather am interested in more epiphenomenal goings on in regards to how we perceive cultural relations and how that is shaped by local contigencies.