Culture Magazine

Scientia Salon on Sperber’s Cultural Attraction

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Scientia Salon recently had a discussion of Nicolas Claidière, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber, How Darwinian is cultural evolution? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Series B, Biological Sciences), 31 March 2014.
Both Scott-Phillips and Sperber showed up, as well as their colleague, Olivier Morin. The discussion was lively and intelligent and highlights some of the difficulties that crop up in thinking about cultural evolution. Alas, no one spoke to my particular hobbyhorse about this approach – that the notion of attractor seems a bit distorted from its source in complex dynamics – so no clarification has been achieved on that score. There was a useful discussion of Morin’s work on eye gaze in portraits, which is one of the examples cited in the article.
Here’s fragments of two comments that do speak to my hobbyhorses, though they are not specifically directed to attractor theory. Helga Vierich noted:
Cultures are not designed by human host populations, but rather represent a replicator best compared to the kind of quorum sensing mechanisms that exist in bacteria and insects, an analogy to other species’ behavioural algorithms also suggested by E.O. Wilson.
It’s the quorum sensing that I like. SocraticGadfly remarked:
Philip I know what an algorithm, is. My eye roll is at the idea that evolution can be reduced to an algorithm, and my bigger eye roll is that, per “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” all Darwin-like, or quasi-Darwinian evolution, is algorithmic. It’s exactly why I also do an eye roll whenever Dennett talks about “greedy reductionism” and fails to include himself.
I too roll my eyes at Dennett’s notion of the Darwinian algorithm. I know very well that various kinds of evolutionary algorithms have been in used in computing for decades, but that quite different from Dennett’s claim that biological evolution is an algorithmic process. That claim strikes me as somewhere between problematic and incoherent.

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