Blute Blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘cultural evolution

Remembering Anatol Rapaport (1911–2007)

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Anatol Rapaport came to the University of Toronto from the USA as a mature scholar during and because of the Viet Nam war. He was a co-founder of the Society for General Systems Research (now ISSS – the International Society for Systems Sciences) as well as of Science for Peace (see his biography on Wikipedia). Among academics, beyond systems scientists, he is probably most well known for a computer programme written for a tournament on the evolution of cooperation. Compared with other long programmes entered, his “Tit for Tat” had just four lines of code – cooperate if the other does and defect if they do. It won when run against all the others!

He was a person of few words in my experience as well. In 1977 I had finished a draft of my PhD thesis on “Darwinian analogues and the naturalistic explanation of purposivism in biology, psychology and the sociocultural sciences” in the sociology department with a biologist on the committee. I had not yet had my oral when my husband to be told me about a conference coming to the campus. I forget its official title but I went, and among other things, found out that Anatol had coauthored an article in the first issue of Behavioral Science in 1956 on the analogy between biological and cultural evolution. Since that view was part of my thesis, after checking with my department, I went to his office with a copy of my thesis and asked him if he would sit on the committee. His response was “leave it with me and come back in a week.” A week later I went back and his response was similarly brief. “I think this is very clever, and yes, I will sit on your committee.

That was not the end of it however, Apparently because of its interdisciplinary and theoretical character, a philosopher of science who shall remain nameless was recruited as the external examiner. He did not like it because he thought selection is only selection against. This created a fuss in the committee of which I was of course unaware and at the oral, obviously by prearrangement, Anatol asked the first question. I had difficulty understanding the question at first, but eventually said “selection is not selection against or selection for, it is a change in relative frequencies”. Anatol responded, “that was what I wanted to hear”. He then sat back and in a few minutes fell asleep for the rest of the oral! Later I received an invitation from Behavioral Science to submit an article, undoubtedly at his instigation. I eventually did and published there “sociocultural evolution: an untried theory”.

To this day ISSS has a quote from him featured on their web page. “To gain knowledge, we must learn to ask the right questions; and to get answers, we must act, not wait for the answers to occur to us.”

Written by Marion Blute

November 7, 2022 at 4:29 pm

Albert Bandura Deceased

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John Simpson kindly drew my attention to the fact that Albert Bandura, a professor at Stanford University, died this summer. He was the psychologist who established social learning theory with his famous Bobo doll experiment. Children who observed models verbally and physically abusing Bobo dolls were more likely than those not so exposed to abuse them in the future.

The existence of social learning by observation is important because its existence necessarily implies the existence of a second cultural inheritance system, and hence a second evolutionary system in the human species beyond the gene-based biological. I wrote about Bandura’s role in this in my book in 2010.

There are two interesting historical footnotes to all of this. First, earlier in the twentieth century, Edward L. Thorndike formulated his famous “law of effect” in an attempt to deny the existence of social learning. Thorndike’s work was developed by Skinner an others into a large body of verified knowledge about individual learning by reinforcement and punishment. However, as Bandura showed, that did not mean that social learning by observation (and ultimately by linguistic instruction) does not exist. Secondly, earlier among nineteenth-century sociologists, Gabriel Tarde argued that the “inter-metal”, specifically imitation, is the unique subject matter of sociology, distinct from the “intra-mental” which is that of psychology.

Bandura and his work were widely celebrated. In 2002, a survey found that he was the next most cited psychologist after Skinner, Freud and Piaget. He was a Canadian by birth and in 2014 was made an officer of the Order of Canada and in 2016 was awarded the National Medal of Science by Barack Obama.

Written by Marion Blute

September 20, 2021 at 10:30 am

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

Why is my organic (kitchen) waste so heavy?

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Like many cities in the developed world these days I suppose, mine has a recycling programme. Basically, organic (kitchen) waste is put out in one can once a week for composting; cans, bottles and paper in another every two weeks for recycling; garbage in a third every two weeks as well for disposal; and garden waste seasonally in paper bags. In our household, the first two are accumulated in similar sized plastic bags in containers in the kitchen and put out in the cans every once in a while, while the third is put out bagless in the third can more frequently as it accumulates. Now here is the puzzle. Whenever I happen to put out the first two at the same time, always in similarly sized bags and therefore similar in volume, the organics for composting are always, always heavier than the garbage for disposal, and by quite a lot. Every time I wonder why that is. Some possibilities might be:

– it’s just idiosyncratic to our household. I suppose if we were repairing cars and disposing of scrap metal (not that anybody would be, scrap metal is valuable these days) but if for the sake of argument we were, it would be different. But I doubt if our experience is unique (otherwise I would not be wondering about it here!)

– biological organisms need protection against antagonists, parasites and predators, hence the denser (from our point of view, waste) – thick skins, peels etc. as well as needing to reproduce – seeds etc. I doubt if that is the answer either. After all, a lot of our garbage is in fact protective – various kinds of non-recyclable packaging like the tissue thin plastic bags that bulk foods and produce are put in and some heavier packaging which have properties designed to persuade you to purchase it, i.e. to serve its reproduction.

-culturally-evolved processes have become more efficient than biologically-evolved ones. Now that is an intriguing possibility.

– finally my (originally an engineer) husband’s suggested answer is that the organic material is wet and water is heavy. Hmm – this possibility admits of an experimental answer, if we dried out a bag of organics would the weights be similar? I have never been much of an experimenter but . . .

Written by Marion Blute

January 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Cultural evolution keeps on coming, in books as well as articles.

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Not only articles, but also increasingly books on Darwinian-style cultural, social and economic evolution are being published. Great! In addition to ones previously mentioned here such as Runciman 2009, Blute 2010 and Hodgson & Knudsen 2010 – on my desk right now are:

Kate Distin. 2011. Cultural Evolution. Cambridge University Press.

Robert H. Frank. 2011. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good. Princeton University Press.

Maria Kronfeldner. 2011. Darwinian Creativity and Memetics. Acumen Publishing Ltd.

Alex Mesoudi. 2011. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences. University of Chicago Press.

I haven’t read all four of these yet, but will be and am looking forward to it!

Written by Marion Blute

October 11, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Research on cultural evolution keeps on coming

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Research on cultural transmission and evolution just keeps on coming – so much so that I can hardly keep up! Great! For example, Andrew Whiten kindly drew my attention to a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B he co-edited with Robert Hinde, Kevin Laland and Christopher Stringer on the subject in April here. As well as an introduction by the co-editors titled “Culture evolves”, it includes 24 other reviews and research articles (many, despite their labels, are in substance a mixture of both.) The stated objective is to emphasize “important linkages between culture and evolutionary biology rather than quarantining one from the other”.

The first eight papers are about social learning in animals – its economics, in fish, birds, mammals particularly meerkats, capuchin monkeys, chimps, and two on the relationship between social learning and other aspects of intelligence.

These are followed by four papers on the evolution of stone tools, eight on diverse other aspects of cultural evolution in humans including archaeology, linguistics, politics and experimental social psychology for example and ending back where we began in a sense with four more papers focusing on social learning, but now in modern humans, particularly children.

This is a very rich resource which I recommend highly for professionals and students alike.

Written by Marion Blute

July 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm