Perspectives on Cultural Evolution

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Last May at the Sante Fe Institute, Daniel Dennett gathered Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, and Kim Sterelny to discuss cultural evolution (via Dan Sperber). Over at the International Cognition and Culture Institute, there are summaries of each of their comments. Dennett:

The working group agreed on a number of points, some methodological and some substantial, that are still considered controversial by others, or in some cases just not yet considered:

1. We should be Darwinian about Darwinism; there are few if any bright lines between phenomena of cultural change for which cultural natural selection is clearly at work and phenomena of cultural change that are not at all Darwinian. The intermediate and mixed cases need not be marginal or degenerate, a fact nicely portrayed in Godfrey-Smith’s Darwinian Spaces.

2. Models must always “over-“simplify, and the existence of complications and even “counterexamples” relative to any model does not automatically show that the model isn’t valid when used with discretion. For instance, the absence of explicit treatment of SCM’s “hetero-impacts” in BRH’s models “does not amount to a denial of its importance”(Godfrey-Smith). Grain level of modeling and explaining can vary appropriately depending on the questions being addressed.

3. The traditional idea that human culture advances primarily by “improvisational intelligence,” the contributions of insightful, intentional, comprehending individual minds, is largely mistaken. Just as plants and animals can be the beneficiaries of brilliant design enhancements that they cannot, and need not, understand, so we human beings enjoy culturally evolved competences that far outstrip our individual comprehension. Not only do we not need to “re-invent the wheel,” we do not need to appreciate or understand the design of many human institutions, technologies, and customs that nevertheless contribute to our welfare in various ways. Moreover (a point of agreement between Sperber and Boyd, for instance), the opacity of some cultural memes (their inscrutability to human comprehension) is often an enhancement to their fitness: “This opacity—which is a matter of degree, of course—is what makes social transmission so important. It plays, I believe, a crucial role in the acceptability of cultural traits: it is, in important ways easier to trust what you don’t fully understand and hence cannot properly evaluate on its own merits.” (Sperber)

More here from Dennett. Other participants' comments can be found here.

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