My daughter has four grandparents. Genetically she is a little over 25 percent her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a little under 25 percent her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother.* Why? Because she is 50 percent genetically identical by descent with her mother and likewise with her father. This is all rather straightforward. But what about culturally?
With biological heredity we can speak of genes, the substrate by which inheritance occurs. With culture memes have been far less fruitful as anything more than an illustration, as opposed to the basis of a formal system of logic and analysis. Nevertheless, we can describe with relative clarity many aspects of culture as a trait or phenotype. And this is important. Recall that evolutionary process was characterized by Charles Darwin despite lacking a satisfying theory of inheritance.
Fascinating paper, Evolution of music by public choice, in PNAS.* The paper is open access, but ScienceNow has a serviceable summary. One somewhat obvious implication from this sort of research, which utilizes human preference to shape a cultural form, is that the topography of human artistic expression is non-arbitrary. In other words, aesthetics is not just historically contingent fiction, but draws upon a deep well of our sense of beauty and pleasure, whether for adaptive or non-adaptive reasons (i.e., culture as byproduct, later subject to functional selection).
But I’m struck by the last section:
John Winthrop, ~1600. Mitt Romney, 2008 – image credit, Jessica Rinaldi
Recently Megan Mcardle had a post up where she expressed curiosity as to why “futurists” circa 1900 had a tendency not to imagine revolutions in clothing style which might have been anticipated to occur over the next few decades. You also see see this in Star Trek in the 1960s, where faux-future fashion was clearly based on the trends of the day, from the beehive hair to miniskirts. So I thought this comment was of interest:
I don’t know the answer, but I don’t know that they were wrong to do it. Keeping fashions exactly the same as the present generally winds up with more in common with the actual future than deliberate “future” fashions. A fair number of men still wear ties, and on rare occasions a few even wear tailcoats; rather fewer wear silver jumpsuits.
There have been a few counters to extreme fashions in media SF: “Blade Runner”‘s lead wore the same trenchcoat as his noir forebears; “Babylon 5” went for modified business suits and moderate variations on military uniforms; the “Battlestar Galactica” reimagining was pretty much straight conservative turn-of-the-millennium wear despite being in a far different time. How have those worn versus the approach taken by “Star Trek” or the 2015 segment of the “Back to the Future” movies?
I’m not sure that I accept this case as airtight, but this is certainly true in the specifics. Though I just saw some clips of Running Man for the first time on Youtube, I viewed Blade Runner a few years back for the second time and was struck by how undated it was in regards to fashion sense. At least in a very noticeable manner. It got me to thinking of the nature of cultural evolution even then.
The fruits of human cooperation
Why cooperation? Why social complexity? Why the ‘problem’ of altruism? These are issues which bubble up at the intersection of ethology and evolution. They also preoccupy thinkers in the social sciences who address fundamental questions. There are perhaps two major dimensions of the parameter space which are useful to consider here: the nature of the relationship between the cooperators, and the scale of the cooperation. An inclusive fitness framework tracks the relation between altruism and genetic relatedness. Reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat don’t necessarily focus on the genetic relationship between the agents who exchange in mutually beneficial actions. But, in classical models they do tend to focus on dyadic relationships at a small scale.* That is, they’re methodologically individualistic at heart. So all complexity can be reduced to lower orders of organization. In economics a rational choice model of behavior is individualistic, as are the critiques out of behavioral economics.
There are other models which break out of this individualistic box, insofar as they make analogies between organisms at the individual scale to social entities which are aggregations of individuals (e.g., a colony or ethnic group). The society as an organism has an old intellectual pedigree, and was elaborated in great detail by Émile Durkheim. More recently David Sloan Wilson has attempted to resurrect this framework in an explicitly evolutionary sense. Wilson has also been the most vocal proponent of multi-level selection, which posits that the unit of selection can be above the level of the gene or individual. For example, selection operating upon distinctive ‘demes.’ Roughly, a breeding social unit.
Fascinating post by Bayes, Phylogenetics, cultural evolution and horizontal transmission:
For some time now, evolutionary biologists have used phylogenetics. It is a well-established, powerful set of tools that allow us to test evolutionary hypotheses. More recently, however, these methods are being imported to analyse linguistic and cultural phenomena. For instance, the use of phylogenetics has led to observations that languages evolve in punctuational bursts, explored the role of population movements, and investigated the descent of Acheulean handaxes. I’ve followed the developments in linguistics with particular interest; after all, tracing the ephemeral nature of language is a daunting task. The first obvious road block is that prior to the invention of writing, the uptake of which is limited in geography and history, language leaves no archaeological record for linguists to examine. One particular note I’d like to make is that when Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of natural selection, he took inspiration from linguistic family trees as the basis for his sketch on the evolutionary tree of life. So it seems rather appropriate that phylogenetic approaches are now being used to inform our knowledge regarding linguistic evolution.
Like many other attempts applying evolutionary thinking in culture, phylogenetic approaches are, at times, met with contempt. This stems from assertions that cultural evolution and biological evolution differ greatly in regards to the relative importance of horizontal transmission….
I guess the general points to take away from this post are: 1) Do not necessarily assume horizontal transmission is dominant in shaping culture; and, 2) Even with certain levels of reticulation, it does not necessarily invalidate a phylogenetic approach in investigating cultural and linguistic evolution.