March 17, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

The Evolution of Cultural Diversity

Darwinism can explain anything these days, including everything from war (see 09/16/2003 headline) to the Golden Rule (see 02/22/2004 headline), so why not culture?  All the arts, sciences, and languages are candidates for naturalistic explanation this week.  The self-proclaimed successors of Adam Smith, Mark Pagel and Ruth Mace, put forward their conjectures in “The cultural wealth of nations” in the Mar. 18 issue of Nature.1
  But first, this reverie:

Humans are the virtuosos of cultural diversity.  We fish, hunt, shepherd, forage and cultivate.  We practise polygyny, polyandry and monogamy, pay bride-prices and dowries, and have patrilineal and matrilineal wealth inheritance.  We construct or inhabit all manner of shelters, speak about 7,000 different languages and eat everything from seeds to whales.  And this is not counting many unique, and sometimes bizarre, belief systems and behavioural practices.

The mystery, in Darwinian terms, is how all this diversity could arise out of a relatively uniform genetic code:

If the picture of human cultures is one of variability, the human genetic landscape is one of homogeneityAll of humanity varies less genetically than does a typical wild population of chimpanzees.  This may reflect our youthfulness as a species.  Anatomically modern Homo sapiens emerged only about 75,000-100,000 years ago , and may have suffered a demographic ‘bottleneck’ in the recent past, meaning that in evolutionary terms we are all descended from a not-so-distant common ancestor.  Also, of course, we can interbreed throughout our entire worldwide range.  Add the facts that we regularly trade, migrate across each other’s territories and wage war against each other, and a puzzle emerges: where does our extreme cultural diversity come from, and what maintains it?

They suggest a new approach to solving this puzzle: think of human cultures like diverse species, evolving by Darwinian means against each other: “The answers can perhaps be found in thinking about human cultures as if they are collections of distinct biological species,” they suggest.  “Just as species carry genetic adaptations to their environments, we believe that cultural adaptations have evolved in response to social life, and that such adaptations work to maintain cultural identity and coherence.”
    Carrying the analogy further, cultural borders are like cell membranes resistant to gene flow.  They draw various analogies between Darwinian biology and Darwinian cultural evolution, such as phylogenetic trees of languages, the evolution of altruism, biogeography, horizontal gene transfer, group selection, etc.  Then they end on what they term “an unscientific postscript” based on the competing interests of the desire to control resources and the desire to gain identity with a group –

Putting these forces together, we get a picture of humans as a highly social and group-focused species.  None of this is to say that selfish behaviour has been erased or that all cultures survive intact.  The all-too-common ‘tragedies of the commons’, in which individual over-exploitation of common resources results in their collapse, remind us of the price of selfishness.  But this picture of the nature of cultures suggests that they are surprisingly robust against outside influences (although not invincible) and that, at least for large cultures, worries about cultural swamping are overstated.  Nevertheless, our ancient cultural practices may also be telling us that, in a world in which mass movements of people from poorer to richer areas will become ever more common, we must be especially vigilant about our own tendencies to protect the status quo ante.


1Mark Pagel and Ruth Mace, “The cultural wealth of nations,” Nature 428, 275 – 278 (18 March 2004); doi:10.1038/428275a.

We assume the authors were excepting themselves when mentioning “unique, and sometimes bizarre, belief systems.”  These authors have just pulled the foundation of meaning out from under all human communication, interaction, art, science and government, but it doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
    Social Darwinism is still around, as you can see.  Modern day Marxists will feel warm fuzzies with this article.  When scientists omit the reality of intelligent design, all they have left is matter in motion.  That matter might be molecules, cells, or people, but never life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It is not self-evident truth to a Darwinist that humans are endowed by a Creator with anything.  Thus government, culture and language must all be just artifacts of matter in motion.  Human culture obeys the same Darwinian laws as bacterial culture.
    Left without design, their pet theory of evolution has to fulfill the role of designer.  Darwinians are always up to the challenge; in fact, it is their form of entertainment (see 02/22/2004 commentary).  The basic Darwinian plot provides an endless, malleable storytelling platform for explaining anything (see 01/15/2004 commentary), and since the Starving Storytellers got on King Charlie’s welfare programs and grew obese (see 12/22/2003 commentary), they no longer have any motivation for hard scientific work.  One outcome is predictable: Nature, that megaphone for Darwin (see 03/04/2004 commentary), will be eagerly poised to shout the latest propaganda to the masses.
Exercise  Did you catch the admission that the entire human population seems to have gone through a demographic bottleneck in the recent past?  And that we all might have descended from a not-so-distant common ancestor?  Can you a describe a historical event that fits this observation?  Extra credit: name the ancestor.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas

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