Saturday, June 28, 2008

On Cultural Evolution

Seed Magazine posted a very interesting article by Paul Ehrlich (of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University), Cultural Evolution. The article looks at whether or not culture evolves through a function of natural selection the same way that genes do. For what it's worth, I tend to believe in meme theory (Ehrlich isn't a fan of this approach) and that it plays a role in cultural evolution, so I find these discussions incredibly entertaining.

Does human culture evolve via natural selection, as our genes do?

Illustration by Studio Commonwealth

Biologists have a pretty good idea of both how flies become resistant to DDT and how humans and primates have diverged over time. That's because the mechanism underlying these processes is the same. Using evolution we can understand how organisms generally change their stores of genetic information (DNA and RNA), alter their observable characteristics, and diversify.

We do not understand how cultures evolve nearly so well. The majority of human evolution does not involve changes in our DNA, but rather alterations in the gigantic library of nongenetic information, the culture, that our species possesses. This library is orders of magnitude larger than that of our genetic information, and the elements on its diverse shelves usually have meaning only in connection with other elements. Indeed, there has been a long, bitter debate about whether it is sensible even to use the term evolution to describe changes in culture. After all, culture is composed of overlapping phenomena from languages, religions, institutions, and socially transmitted power relationships to the information embodied in artifacts ranging from potsherds to jumbo jets. The study of cultural change encompasses not only the disciplines of biology and the social sciences, but areas of the humanities as well.

Despite the great difficulties of building a comprehensive theory of cultural change deserving of the label of "evolution," progress in that direction has begun. We are finally starting to understand the patterns of culture change and the role of natural selection in shaping them. And since everything from weapons of mass destruction to global heating are the results of changes in human culture over time, acquiring a fundamental understanding of cultural evolution just might be the key to saving civilization from itself.

Read the rest of this fascinating article.

For another take on this topic, the current episode of Blogging Heads TV also features Paul Ehrlich talking about his new book, The Dominant Animal.

Here is the publisher's statement about the book.

In humanity’s more than 100,000 year history, we have evolved from vulnerable creatures clawing sustenance from Earth to a sophisticated global society manipulating every inch of it. In short, we have become the dominant animal. Why, then, are we creating a world that threatens our own species? What can we do to change the current trajectory toward more climate change, increased famine, and epidemic disease?

Renowned Stanford scientists Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich believe that intelligently addressing those questions depends on a clear understanding of how we evolved and how and why we’re changing the planet in ways that darken our descendants’ future. The Dominant Animal arms readers with that knowledge, tracing the interplay between environmental change and genetic and cultural evolution since the dawn of humanity. In lucid and engaging prose, they describe how Homo sapiens adapted to their surroundings, eventually developing the vibrant cultures, vast scientific knowledge, and technological wizardry we know today.

But the Ehrlichs also explore the flip side of this triumphant story of innovation and conquest. As we clear forests to raise crops and build cities, lace the continents with highways, and create chemicals never before seen in nature, we may be undermining our own supremacy. The threats of environmental damage are clear from the daily headlines, but the outcome is far from destined. Humanity can again adapt—if we learn from our evolutionary past.

Those lessons are crystallized in The Dominant Animal. Tackling the fundamental challenge of the human predicament, Paul and Anne Ehrlich offer a vivid and unique exploration of our origins, our evolution, and our future.
Watch the discussion at the Blogging Heads site.

No comments: