Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Enriching the Cultural Evolution Project with Cognitive Psychology but . . .

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Anyone who enjoys reading ‘big picture’ books involving the behavioral and brain sciences in an interdisciplinary context will enjoy Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking by Cecilia Heyes. Its goal is almost, well, grandiose. It addresses what is unique about humans; distinguishing among nature, nurture and culture; a generic genetic starter kit for the latter; the distinction between social and cultural learning; and neurocognitive mechanisms – the latter being “small but important” parts of human minds including selective social learning, imitation, mindreading and language (although calling these “gadgets” almost trivializes them). This framework used strikes me as more of a combination of cultural evolutionary theory and cognitive psychology than of cultural evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology as the author claims. I suspect that the reason for the claim as made is that putting the terms “evolution” and “psychology” together makes it impossible not to address evolutionary psychology for disciplinary reasons even though most of the discussion of the latter in the book is in fact dissenting.

I would criticize two points while still endorsing much of the project as a whole. The third section of chapter 2 claims that variants of ideas or behaviors are “unitized by common sense or folk psychology” and in section 2.3 of the target article that is said to be the “only” way. This cavalierly dismisses the work of dozens of social scientists and humanists – anthropologists, archaeologists, historical linguists and others doing research on cultural evolution. They have demonstrated, using a variety of quantitative scientific methods, that the classification of cultural traits into groups within groups is as revealing of the history of the historical relationships among them as Darwin first argued was the case for biological traits.

The second criticism I would make is of the strong distinction drawn between social and cultural learning when culture is a population of social learning events and particularly the claim that no mechanism of cultural inheritance is analogous to DNA replication. To the contrary, social learning by linguistic instruction whether oral, written, or electronic as opposed to by observation in any sensory modality is analogous to genetic transmission in a surprising amount of detail. For example, both are structurally composed of digital strings (nucleotide bases genetically and phonemes linguistically) which aid stability in transmission, larger basic units of function (codons genetically and morphemes and lexical items linguistically), and more inclusive units of each until one reaches that which can stand alone – a genome genetically or a sentence or utterance linguistically. Moreover units of function in both are said to be symbolic rather than iconic because of the arbitrary i.e. historical nature of the link between strings of symbols and what they stand for or represent. None of this should be taken to imply that the meaning of strings of symbols in either case is not enriched in other ways – by many kinds of cytoplasmic inheritance and inductive environmental influences biologically and tones, gestures, facial expressions, illustrations, emojis etc. linguistically.

Despite these and other criticism that could be made, I have no doubt that cognitive psychology will eventually add much to the cultural evolutionary project including possibly Heyes four gadgets which she presents as a program for future research.

Written by Marion Blute

June 13, 2019 at 7:19 pm

Who Needs Pragmatism? Nobody and Everybody.

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I did not pay a lot of attention to the revival of pragmatism in sociological theory in the second half of the twentieth century. One reason was I sensed some chauvinistically American nationalism after the leadership in social theory shifted to Europe in the post-Parsonian period. The implicit claim of pragmatism was “Oh, well there is an important historical tradition in social theory that is quintessentially American”.

But the major reason for my inattention was scientific. The core premise of pragmatic philosophy is that what is true is what works i.e. consequences are what matter. However, a century old philosophy is a poor substitute for the three major selectionist scientific theories – biological evolution by natural selection, individual learning by instrumental or operant conditioning, and sociocultural evolution by social learning, variation and sociocultural selection – all three of which embody that premise. These sciences share pragmatism’s premise, but they are scientific instantiations – each with a large number of related theoretical propositions, derivations, empirical support etc.

Nor did the three have their historical roots in pragmatic philosophy – if anything the reverse is the case. The early pragmatic philosophers were influenced by Darwin (see for example Nungesser 2017). In short, nobody in the social sciences needs a 19th century philosophy, but all need it in one or more of its scientific forms.


Nungesser, Frithjof. 2017. “The evolution of pragmatism: On the scientific background of the pragmatist conception of history, action and sociality.” European Journal of Sociology 58(2) 327-367.

Written by Marion Blute

June 2, 2019 at 7:09 pm

Remembering David Hull

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This post is long overdue. David died in 2010 (see his brief biography and bibliography on Wikipedia). He was a philosopher of science, specifically of Biology, and wrote the first textbook on that – Philosophy of Biological Science in 1974. While he published much else, his magnum opus was Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science published in 1988.

Key Ideas: Science as a Process tells the story of the three schools of biological systematics vying for dominance in the 1970’s and early 1980’s – cladistics which maintained that biological classification should be strictly historical, numerical taxonomy which maintained that it should be based on overall observed similarities and differences, and those who advocated a pragmatic mixture of both and who called themselves evolutionary taxonomists. In the course of telling that story, Hull presented his evolutionary theory of science. Morphing into a sociologist, he used a variety of sociological methods including studying referees’ reports to illustrate it empirically. Science is based on curiosity (innovation), credit (descent), and checking (selection). Concepts, theories and methods in science literally evolve culturally including even by the equivalent of kin selection according to Hull.

He also took part in the lively units of selection debate in Biology over the plausibility or lack thereof of group selection. According to Hull, the debate was confused because the elements of an evolutionary process are predicated of different entities – genes replicate, organisms are selected and lineages evolve.

He is also remembered along with Michael Ghiselin for drawing a distinction between individuals and classes. Species and other higher taxa are “individuals”, not in the sense of functionally integrated organisms, but in the sense that they are branches of the tree of life – historically specific entities about which only particular statements can be made. They have an historical origin, a specific geographical distribution, and an historical end. They stand in contrast with the universally specified “classes” of traditional scientific theories, Newton’s mechanical systems for example obey certain laws whenever and wherever they are found. They did not deny that there may be such classes in biology scattered across the tree of life – laws governing small organisms with fast life cycles versus large ones with longer slower life cycles for example both of which can be found in a variety of taxa. Like his altruistic personality in general, David was proud of the fact that he and Michael never engaged in priority disputes over the individuals-classes distinction.

HIV/AIDS: As a gay man, David’s life was affected by the Aids outbreak in the west in the 1980’s. Not so well known is that he wrote Science as a Process, at nights while in the daytime nursing to the end two friends dying of HIV/AIDS. When I asked him why he did it, he said simply “they had nowhere else to go”. He regularly advised young colleagues to talk to their students about HIV. He used to say, “tell them you are not trying to stop their fun. It is just that they need to use protection until we get this thing figured out.” I have often wondered how many lives he saved indirectly that way.

Organizing & Mentoring: David did much organizing and mentoring. As well as being President of the Philosophy of Science Association for a time, while researching the history of biological systematics for Science as a Process, like the anthropologist who becomes king of the tribe he is studying, David became President of the Society for Systematic Biology! He was also a founding member of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, ISHPSSB or Ishkibble to insiders! Like David, it is interdisciplinary in nature – a society in which biologists, philosophers of science, historians of science and social scientists actually talk to one another about Biology and it remains my favourite society.

I had much personal experience of David’s mentoring of many younger colleagues from the first paper I sent to him based on part of my PhD thesis (by snail mail in those days). I received a prompt reply about how I got almost everything right except one thing! At various times he invited me to take part in sessions at Duke University and ISH, always followed my work with interest and comments, and I understand he wrote letters for my tenure and promotion to Associate Professor and later to full Professor. It was so characteristic of David that while a graduate student of mine, Paul Armstrong, was interviewing him for a project we were working on analysing texts and interviewing theorists on the general theories of science/scholarship that had emerged after the decline of logical positivism, a study later published in the journal Perspectives on Science, David could not resist inserting career advice for Paul!

Last Contact: My last contact with David was after the ISHPSSB meeting in Australia in 2009. He had had a fall and had not been able to go. We exchanged e-mails – he was anxious to know how everything went and all the gossip. When my monograph was coming out in 2010 I sent him the final text to read and was dismayed to soon receive a response from someone sorting out his academic affairs that he had died. That was probably the saddest day of my professional life.

Written by Marion Blute

May 5, 2019 at 7:18 pm

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Evolutionary Lessons in How to Succeed

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  1. Most cultural like most biological innovations fail (most papers that are published are rarely cited, most patents that are granted are never utilized and most new businesses and new products fail for example). As early as 1979 I gathered information supporting such generalizations from a variety of sources. The first lesson: despite all the current hype to the contrary, don’t innovate!
  2. Successful macro mutations do occur but are rarer than hens’ teeth so the second lesson is that if one must innovate, make (numerous if necessary) small changes.
  3. Most speciation is geographical – despite all the hype about the importance of becoming a world-wide competitor, the third lesson is that innovations should be geographically specific.
  4. However, there are advantages to ecological specialization. Specialists tend to be  more efficient in the segment of a niche that they specialize in than are generalists in that segment so the fourth lesson is to specialize. But in a however to the however, avoid extreme niche markets – because of sampling error, tastes there are likely to be random.
  5. Since most innovations fail, how should success be measured? Relatively of course. Finally I must admit that I have rarely taken these lessons to heart myself!

Written by Marion Blute

May 4, 2019 at 1:53 pm

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Tangled Trees?

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David Quammen book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life was reviewed in Nature Aug. 2 by John Archibald (not incidentally the author of a book on symbiosis). It was also reviewed in the New York Times Book Review on Aug 14 by Erika Check Hayden under the title of “Uprooted”. On Aug 19, Quammen himself published an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life”.

Quammen’s book is largely about Carl Woese, the great pioneer of molecular phylogenetics, who in 1977 with coauthor Fox, made clear from their study of a component of ribosomes (protein factories in cells) that there are three not two domains of life – the Archaea in addition to Bacteria and organisms with nucleated cells like plants, animals, fungi and some unicellular organisms (Eukarya). Woese was apparently not a fan of Darwin – he commented to a prospective co-author of a book to be titled Beyond God and Darwin, “Jan, you accord Darwin so much more substance than the bastard deserves”.

Anyway, the theme of the reviews and article (and I assume of the book which I have not, or at least not yet read), is that life is better described as a “network”, a “tangled web”, or a “topiary” rather than Darwin’s tree because of the existence of horizontal i.e. lateral gene transfer (LGT ). LGT can take place by transformation (taking up DNA from the environment), transduction (a piece of host DNA carried to another organism by a virus), and conjugation (bacterial “sex” which is unidirectional). Unfortunately Hayden casually equates LGT with “swapping genes” which is exactly what it is not i.e. bidirectional rather than unidirectional. Not does its existence invalidate Darwin’s tree metaphor for evolution as these authors generally seem to think. Quammen’s article is illustrated with outrageous illustrations of what looks like an early hominid with a chicken’s head, one with a fish’s head, a human with what looks like a frog’s body between head and shoulders on top and lower legs and feet on the bottom. Perhaps we should not blame Quammen for these illustrations but the point is that because laterally transferred DNA is normally just a tiny part of the genomes of eukaryotes, the best metaphor I have seen is “trees with some cobwebs”. (In 2005 Liza Gross in PloS attributes this metaphor to Fan Ge and coauthors.)

Yet, once anisogamy (micro and macro gametes) have evolved, then sex again becomes unidirectional, i.e. from males or male functions to females or female functions. But that is unidirectional within a species – indeed the ability to interbreed after Mayr is what is most commonly said to define species boundaries. Of course Woese was right that we know very little of what went on in the early history of life. However, only if hybridization (sex between members of different species) were rampant in the Eukarya could Darwin’s trees truly be said to be entangled and despite the occasional case there is no evidence of that.

Written by Marion Blute

September 6, 2018 at 7:50 pm

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Autistics, Saints & Sinners: Ecological and Social Evolution

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It is common in evolutionary theory to distinguish between ecological and social evolution – evolution in interaction with the physical environment and other species versus that in interaction with other members of the same population or species. Of course in ecological evolution individuals compete with respect to some ecological phenomenon, but the difference is that it is a ‘scramble’ i.e. contact and interaction are not involved as they are in social evolution which includes phenomena such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, various kinds of ‘contests’ involving contact and aggression, sexual selection etc.

A case might be made that there is actually something else and not just an absence of autistic characteristics at the other end of the autism spectrum. Most fundamentally, autism may reflect an excessive preoccupation with, and behaviour oriented towards the physical and ecological environments, “things” (which may include animals), at the cost of neglect of the social. V. K. Jaswal and N. Akhtar in an article on autism in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in June (see also their article in the New York Times, July 13) describe motor stereotypes but not other restricted and repetitive interests and activities. After all, it is no secret that Silicon valley is populated by austicish individuals preoccupied with their computers, programmes and gadgets. At the other end of the spectrum “saints” (Williams syndrome?) but also “sinners” (psychopaths) reflect an excessive preoccupation with, and behaviour oriented towards the social environment at the cost of neglect of the physical and ecological. The distinction between saints and sinners simply reflects whether the prevailing social orientation at that end of the hypothesized spectrum tends towards cooperative (altruistic – + or mutualistic + + interactions) versus conflict (selfish + – or spiteful – – ones). Individuals with Williams syndrome are exuberantly social including linguistically but in addition to lacking many ecologically-oriented cognitive skills such as spatial ones, lack social caution or fear. Of course, few individuals are at either of these social extremes, just as few are at the ecological or social extremes, most being somewhere closer to the middle.

Unfortunately, because the same ecological versus social distinction could be drawn about any selection process, none of this speaks to which one or ones of several possible selection processes – biological evolution, development, individual learning or sociocultural evolution is responsible for giving rise to autistics versus saints and/or sinners. Jaswal and Akhtar argue that autistics do not lack social motivation or interest. Instead, there may be a lack of ability or even adaptive or cultural reasons to avoid engaging in various forms of social interaction towards that end of the spectrum. It seems likely that genetics and/or development is involved but Jaswal and Akhtar make a good case that individual learning (“adaptation”) and/or cultural transmission are also part of the story.

Written by Marion Blute

September 3, 2018 at 2:33 pm

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Ridley (Continued)

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I do agree with Ridley that evolution is a general theory which is “not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes” (p.2) and even that there is much evidence for culture-driven genetic change in the human species (Chapter 5). He describes the process most often as one of “trial and error”. I would be happier if he would make the metaphor explicit and say like trial and error because the latter is a psychological not a sociocultural process. Cultural or sociocultural evolution takes place by cultural transmission, variation and selection. I also agree that divisions of labour within individuals and specialization and trade between them (which incidentally need to be distinguished) are important in evolution, even biologically. They may be involved in the origin and evolution of gender differences and relations for example.

Ridley is not always consistent. For example, one of his most repetitive themes is that evolution is a “bottoms up process”. It is not always clear what he means by this – sometimes he seems to be reaching for what evolutionists call “populational thinking” i.e. evolution is not about individual anythings but about populations of such. Anyway, for a “bottoms up” guy I found it strange that he attributes variation and change in monogamy and polygamy in human history to its “beneficial effects on society” (chapter 5) and the popularity of “fictions” like the mind is because it “preserves the social order” (chapter 8) . Similarly, for one who opposes a “great man” theory of history and the importance commonly placed on the role of leaders in social change I found it strange that when ultimately using Hong Kong as the model of successful economic development in chapter 12, he attributes its success to the actions of a governor and later a financial secretary. Weren’t they leaders?

Nor should one take this book as an authoritative source on evolutionary processes.The prologue tells us that evolution is “incremental and gradual” (well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t) and that the genome has “no master gene” (we don’t know whether it does or does not). Chapter 4 generally adopts Dawkins genes-eye view of biological evolution mostly avoiding problems such as all the cutting and pasting that goes on from transcription to post-translation and the fact that recombination in sexual species takes place within as well as between functional units. These mean that there is no genomic unit that is consistently reproduced or replicated, varies and evolves adaptively except, I suppose, base pairs. But somehow the idea of selfish base pairs is less captivating than selfish genes (although Ridley studiously avoids the “s” word, as does Dawkins himself these days).

Chapter 2 tells us that morality emerges spontaneously as individuals learn how to “get along” because they enjoy making other people happy! Given that the topic of altruistic (- +) and cooperative (+ +) as opposed to selfish (+ -) and spiteful (- -) relationships are among the most discussed in modern evolutionary theory, it is shocking that Ridley seems blissfully unaware of or uninterested in any of these ideas or research. In fact, this book even misses much discussed things which might be taken to support some of the views it expresses. One of the most discussed topics in recent years stemming from Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s book The Major Transitions in Evolution has been transitions from prokaryotic cells to the eukaryotic, from single celled eukaryotes to the multicelled, from multicelled individuals to eusocial colonies and so on. Whatever theory one might favour of such transitions, they were undoubtedly bottoms-up events although the majority view is that they then transition to a top down process.

Oh well, I hope to have better luck with a couple of other books. Stay tuned but I will be slow – I have other responsibilities.

Written by Marion Blute

February 3, 2016 at 11:43 pm

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