Who Are the Cultural Evolutionists?
The relevance of theories to a theory...
Realized today I had written this up several months ago and never clicked publish, so here’s a post seemingly out of a time capsule…
The Cultural Evolution Society had its fourth international meeting in Aarhus, Denmark this summer. Although he did not attend in person himself (neither did I), Richard McElreath dropped a new blogpost critiquing the field titled “The Problem With Cultural Evolution.”
As predicted, the blogpost incited a great deal of discussion both inside cultural evolution and outside. In fact, I saw more commentary surrounding his one-line comment about evolutionary psychology than I did about the actual content of the blogpost. Nevertheless, despite digressions, opinions about cultural evolution have propagated.
Arguably, most people pretty much agree with McElreath on what he’s had to say and I don’t see very much to add to the conversation, but I do want to make my own remarks about cultural evolution and where I see a couple of growing pains. It’s in a point where I think McElreath has buried the lede, point 2 in his essay:
When empirical programs in cultural evolution began, they were closely tied to theoretical implications. However the foundational models are insufficient, because they were highly abstract and usually inapplicable to any precise empirical context. Before meaningful traction between theory and data can be made, new models must be constructed that have the resolution of the data. This is the same awkward evolution that population genetics underwent as it became an empirical science.
In this section, Richard is talking about the “performative” nature of much of the fieldwork in cultural evolution. Sure, this is probably true, but the second and third sentences here seem to be the most important to me: that, as the field has empirically developed, its core theoretical foundations haven’t necessarily expanded.
Now, of course, people will look at this comment and say, “What are you talking about? What about all the new theoretical models we’ve added to our repertoire?” And I’ll agree - the field has expanded its theoretical repertoire to include a lot more awesome things, but at its core we are still working in the same type of models of the same types of phenomenon.
What do I mean by this? I mean that there are a lot of things that might be called Cultural Evolution that don’t theoretically fit into cultural evolution. To the extent that Boyd & Richerson’s work on social transmission and dual-inheritance theory can explain a wide diversity of behaviors that humans express, it still misses out on several things.
I recall my own attendance to my first (and only) Cultural Evolution Society meeting in Tempe, Arizona in 2018. At the time I was between graduate programs and the meeting to me appeared to be absolute theoretical anarchy. I wandered from talk to talk hearing about a number of very interesting, but largely disconnected things sitting under one roof. This seemed to be a wide umbrella, and in fact, in one talk I attended, an uppercase cultural evolution researcher rudely stood up during the Q&A and informed the speaker that what he had found in his study was not, in fact, cultural evolution at all and that it had no relevance to the conference. Each of the talks made sense on their own, but all together, there was no clear way in which they linked up. Nothing really made of any sense to me until I encountered a philosopher, William Wimsatt*, who, during his talk, made a comment that the people studying memetics and MLTs (meme-like things) “could not see the forest for the trees.”
And to this day, I agree. There is this sense that cultural macroevolution, technological evolution, the study of the development of complex societies, cultural phylogenetics, etc do not at all link up with the Boyd & Richerson or even Sperbier models of cultural evolution. I don't want people to get the wrong impression in thinking that “cultural evolution” isn't the place to talk about these things because actually it is, we just aren't there with our theoretical framework right now.
As I discuss in my recent podcast with Razib Khan, the reality is that these other approaches are much older than the latter approaches designed by Boyd & Richerson. I also wrote about this in a blogpost just before I attended my first CES meeting titled “Who Are the Evolutionary Anthropologists?”
To what extent are these theoretical frameworks compatible (or, ironically, consilient) with one other and to what extent is it that they simply share the same name? In my own work, I at times feel somewhat disconnected from the core theory - not in the sense that I feel I have somehow left the theoretical umbrella in my own research, but in the sense that the theory has not explicitly connected yet.
As Richard notes, there were some similar pains with population genetics, and I feel that the parallel to evolutionary biology in general is rather apt. You might think about how much oof the development of biological evolution’s larger theory was rather agnostic about the organism itself. As I argue in the podcast with Razib around the 38-39 minute mark, the introduction of things like evo-devo and further developments of a historical theory of the fossil record allowed for the organism to re-enter the picture here. What we might need here is a more sufficient theory of what my advisor, Paul Smaldino, calls “group-level traits,” traits which cannot, or perhaps should not, be explained in terms of individual meme-like transmission, but instead should only be examined on the level of the group (Peter Turchin has a funny joke about this - you would not say a person “has” a Supreme Court, would you?).
In any event, like Richard, I see some parallels to our sister field. At my last attendance at HBES (the Human Behavior and Evolution Society - the conference for evolutionary psychologists), I noted between all the many posters and talks, only two abstracts had the term “modularity” in them. I have been on a mission to track these things over time looking at previously published HBES abstracts and have noted an absolute decline in any work on evolutionary psychology’s core theoretical premises. As Richard notes, cultural evolution was supposed to be different (more theorists, more math people!), but perhaps we’re currently stalled.
It means there’s a lot of work to be done, perhaps a premature extended cultural evolutionary synthesis will come to us soon.
*During a dinner, Wimsatt mentioned to me that his grad student’s grad students have grad students now. In a weird turn of events, I have come to find out my graduate advisor’s graduate advisor’s graduate advisor was, in fact, Bill Wimsatt.