Culture Magazine

A Short Note on Why It is Important to Conceive of Culture as Giving Rise to an Evolutionary Process

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
On December 1 I posed four questions in the study of cultural evolution, offering short answers for each:
1. What is the target/beneficiary of the evolutionary dynamic?

2. Replication (copying) or (re)construction.

3. Is there a meaningful distinction comparable to the biological distinction between phenotype and genotype?

4. So what? That is to say, what can an evolutionary account of cultural history tell us that isn’t captured in a pile of narratives of the more standard kind?
I want to say a bit more about that fourth question. I have variously argued that cultural evolution is the single most important force in human history. If true, then we can’t understand human history unless we understand cultural evolution.
Specifically we have to understand that cultural evolution is a force. The first time I posed the issue (to myself) I went to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and consulted the article on Philosophy of History looking for a list of forces supposed to be operative. There was a section on “Causation in History” that had something about how analytical philosophers thought about “the role of causal ascriptions in historical explanations.” But that said nothing that spoke to my question. I learned as well that this is a “new” philosophy of history that “emphasizes historical narrative rather than historical causation.” That does not sound good. And so it went through the whole article.
Are there no forces in history? What does “force” mean in this context? Surely it must mean something more than a jumble of individual narratives. Indeed, that’s one thing I’m arguing against. Here’s a passage from the SEP article on Cultural Evolution:
One might fear that in the end cultural change, and the influence of cultural change on other aspects of the human species, are best understood through a series of individual narratives. Our brief examination of memetics illustrated this concern. We gain no real explanatory insight if we are told that ideas spread through populations, some more successfully than others. We want to know what makes some ideas fitter than others. And it is not clear that there will be any general rules that can help us to answer this question. In the biological realm we need detailed accounts of local environmental circumstances, species-specific physiology and anatomy, and so forth, to tell us what makes one organic variant fitter than another. Similarly, in the cultural realm we will need to look at local psychological dispositions to explain why some ideas are more likely to spread than others. So any explanatory value to be had from memetics is parasitic on conventional work done in psychology.
Yes, sure, we’ve got all those narratives. But cultural evolution considered as a force is surely more than a pile of individual narratives. And the same for biological evolution.
Should we consider it a force in history, the history of the earth? I should think so. That is, if I’m going to conceive of cultural evolution as a force, I’m going to do the same with biological evolution.
In both these cases, what does it mean to conceive of evolution as a force? In both cases it’s a force acting on and through populations of individuals. What authorizes that we talk of force? That is certainly a matter of (mere) semantics. But it is also one of substance. I’m asserting that evolution plays a (causal) role in the living world that is similar to the roles of gravity, electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces.
I’m (provisionally) willing to think of history as a pile of narratives. Biological and cultural evolution are forces that operate on and through piles of narratives. Of course earth has a prebiotic history. Those narratives could not have been affected by the bio-evolutionary force (much less the cultural EF). And the BEF would have been weak in the beginning, but in time it remade the earth, e.g. the Great Oxygenation Event in which O2 was deposited in the atmosphere. The same with CEF. BEF and CEF thus bring about organization among millions of individual narratives.
And THAT’s what needs to be appropriately conceptualized, that coordination. That’s why we need a concept of force.

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