Culture Magazine

Dennett's Santa Fe Workshop on Cultural Evolution

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
In May of this year philosopher Dan Dennett convened a workshop on cultural evolution at the Santa Fe Institute. The following were in attendance: Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, Kim Sterelny. While the workshop has not issued any formal proceedings an informal report has been posted at the International Cognition and Culture Institute (ICCI). Dennett has prepared a summary of the discussions and each individual discussant has also prepared summary remarks. Dennett notes that there are terminological issues:
Three frustrating terminological problems were exposed, but we didn’t resolve how to correct them: “cultural group selection,” “meme,” and “Darwinian” are all good terms, historically justifiable and useful in context, but by now all are so burdened with legacies of ideological conflict that any use of them invites misbegotten “refutation” or dismissal. Should we abandon the terms in favor of emotionally inert replacements, or should we persist with them, always accompanying their use with a wreath of explanation? These are questions of diplomacy or pedagogical policy, not serious theoretical issues, but still, alas, unignorable.
These are the points of consensus that Dennett has identified:
1. We should be Darwinian about Darwinism; there are few if any bright lines between phenomena of cultural change for which cultural natural selection is clearly at work and phenomena of cultural change that are not at all Darwinian. The intermediate and mixed cases need not be marginal or degenerate, a fact nicely portrayed in Godfrey-Smith’s Darwinian Spaces.
2. Models must always “over-“simplify, and the existence of complications and even “counterexamples” relative to any model does not automatically show that the model isn’t valid when used with discretion. For instance, the absence of explicit treatment of SCM’s [Sperber, Claidière, Morin] “hetero-impacts” in BRH’s models “does not amount to a denial of its importance”(Godfrey-Smith). Grain level of modeling and explaining can vary appropriately depending on the questions being addressed.
3. The traditional idea that human culture advances primarily by “improvisational intelligence,” the contributions of insightful, intentional, comprehending individual minds, is largely mistaken. Just as plants and animals can be the beneficiaries of brilliant design enhancements that they cannot, and need not, understand, so we human beings enjoy culturally evolved competences that far outstrip our individual comprehension. Not only do we not need to “re-invent the wheel,” we do not need to appreciate or understand the design of many human institutions, technologies, and customs that nevertheless contribute to our welfare in various ways. Moreover (a point of agreement between Sperber and Boyd, for instance), the opacity of some cultural memes (their inscrutability to human comprehension) is often an enhancement to their fitness: “This opacity—which is a matter of degree, of course—is what makes social transmission so important. It plays, I believe, a crucial role in the acceptability of cultural traits: it is, in important ways easier to trust what you don’t fully understand and hence cannot properly evaluate on its own merits.” (Sperber)
4. The persistence of cultural features that are not fitness-enhancing, and may even be fitness-reducing, is to be expected in cultural evolution, and can have a variety of explanations.
On the last I assume that by fitness-enhancing, Dennett means the biological fitness of human individuals.
I have no problems with any of these. Dennett listed six new questions, which you can investigate for yourself.

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