August 9, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Cultural Evolution Theory: Darwin Fail on Arrival

Here’s why theories on the evolution of human culture are doomed from the get-go.

The National Academy of Sciences published a set of papers on Cultural Evolution recently. Some three dozen evolutionists, including Francisco Ayala, took part in the shebang, spilling their neurons about how the cultural practices of humans (and some other intelligent species, like dolphins), evolve by natural selection (the evolutionists’ answer to everything). We’ll list the papers with links to those interested, but then we’ll describe why Darwinian theories about cultural evolution are doomed from the outset. You might not want to waste your time on the papers, therefore, unless you want to examine them as a case study on how academics can become too smart to see their own illogic. Maybe that would make for a good paper in response. But don’t miss the surprise ending!

First, let’s look at a press release from the Max Planck Institute about the project. Notice the problems they themselves freely acknowledge:

To date, most research on cultural evolution focuses on microevolution; changes that occur within cultural groups over relatively short periods of time. However, as Russell Gray, Director of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at MPI-SHH points out “processes observed at the micro level do not necessarily explain the macroevolutionary patterns and major transitions we observed in deeper human history.” In a new article by Russell Gray and Joseph Watts in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) present [sic] a “plea” for research on cultural macroevolution. The authors highlight the exciting potential to combined [sic] cutting edge statistical methods and comprehensive cross-cultural database to resolve longstanding debates about the major cultural transitions in human prehistory.

Before even looking at the PNAS papers, therefore, we know that the evolutionists will not and cannot answer the big question! That question involves macroevolution of human culture by Darwinian processes (i.e., natural selection). Microevolution in culture, it could be argued, is intelligently designed by leadership decisions about what the group should do. On their own judgment, therefore, they have no evolutionary answers: only “potential” answers, which of course is the futureware fallacy.

The lead article makes it clear that natural selection will be the only tool allowed in their explanatory toolkit. This is important for our analysis that follows. In “Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters ” (PNAS), Creanza, Kolodny and Feldman say this:

Human culture encompasses ideas, behaviors, and artifacts that can be learned and transmitted between individuals and can change over time. This process of transmission and change is reminiscent of Darwin’s principle of descent with modification through natural selection, and Darwin himself drew this explicit link in the case of languages: “The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel”. Theory underpins most scientific endeavors, and, in the 1970s, researchers began to lay the groundwork for cultural evolutionary theory, building on the neo-Darwinian synthesis of genetics and evolution by using verbal, diagrammatic, and mathematical models. These models are, by necessity, approximations of reality, but because they require researchers to specify their assumptions and extract the most important features from complex processes, they have proven exceedingly useful in advancing the study of cultural evolution. Here, we review the field of cultural evolutionary theory as it pertains to the extension of biology through culture.

Here are the other papers in the series with links, and indications that the authors are keeping to the Darwin-only rules. You can skip over these titles if you want, because as we will show afterwards, nothing they say matters anyway.

  1. Lotem et al., “The evolution of cognitive mechanisms in response to cultural innovations” (PNAS). “The authors used computer simulations to show that even in the presence of genetic variation, cultural conventions of language are like ‘moving targets’ for natural selection, making the evolution of genetic adaptations to specific languages highly implausible.” Later, “Whereas it is relatively easy to see how natural selection acts on clearly defined morphological traits, such as limbs, bones, or coloration, with cognitive traits that are not well understood, it is difficult to tell what is actually evolving.”
  2. Rai et al., “Dehumanization increases instrumental violence, but not moral violence” (PNAS). “Recent ethnographic and historical analyses, and classical works on the evolution of cooperation and the sociology of crime….” etc.
  3. Hal Whitehead, “Gene–culture coevolution in whales and dolphins” (PNAS). ” In all cases, socially learned behavior affects how individuals interact with their environment or with each other and thus affects the transmission patterns or selection pressures on genes.”
  4. Alex Mesoudi, “Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution” (PNAS). “This idea is the basic premise of cultural evolution: Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species.”
  5. Andrew Whiten, “Culture extends the scope of evolutionary biology in the great apes” (PNAS). “I address these issues first by evaluating the extent to which the results of cultural inheritance echo a suite of core principles that underlie organic Darwinian evolution but also extend them in new ways and then by assessing the principal causal interactions between the primary, genetically based organic processes of evolution and the secondary system of cultural inheritance that is based on social learning from others.”
  6. Whiten, Ayala, Feldman and Laland, “The extension of biology through culture” (PNAS). Darwin-lovers all, these four evolutionists mention Darwin almost worshipfully throughout their paper. “Initial explorations of Darwinian dynamics in the case of animal culture have taken the list of eight key properties extracted from the Origin of Species for testing with human data [the six listed above, plus changes of function and convergent evolution] and through examining studies of animal culture, concluded there is evidence for all of them (although minimal and slow-developing compared with the most recent, cumulative cultures of humans).”
  7. Errico et al., “Identifying early modern human ecological niche expansions and associated cultural dynamics in the South African Middle Stone Age” (PNAS). These authors appear to go beyond Darwin, but their additional process—exaptation—is just another form of natural selection that finds a new use for an existing trait. Both processes, however, are purely materialistic in evolutionary thinking, because it happens in worms as well as humans. “Our findings support the view that the path followed by past human populations to produce adaptations and cultural traits, which most researchers would qualify as typically human, is not the outcome of classic Darwinian evolutionary processes in which the appearance of a new niche is often associated with a new species. Rather, the innovations characteristic of the HP represent cultural exaptation: innovations that use existing skills, techniques, and ideas in new ways.”
  8. Katz, Grote and Weaver, “Changes in human skull morphology across the agricultural transition are consistent with softer diets in preindustrial farming groups” (PNAS). All materialistic, even though they think ‘plasticity’ in skull shape is more important than natural selection. “We therefore think genetic mechanisms should not be wholly discounted in studies of the effects of agriculture on skull morphology.”
  9. Stout and Hecht, “Evolutionary neuroscience of cumulative culture” (PNAS). Surprise! These authors prefer an “extended evolutionary synthesis” over classical Darwinism. No surprise: the EES is just as materialistic as the old neo-Darwinian synthesis. “Key questions include the extent and nature of overlap between processes supporting behavior execution, observation, and interpretation (e.g., ToM), and the relevance of evolutionary processes other than natural selection (e.g., CE [cultural evolution]). An emerging extended evolutionary synthesis (EES) effectively addresses both topics through its core concepts of constructive development and reciprocal causation.”
  10. Gray and Watts, “Cultural macroevolution matters” (PNAS). “Evolutionary thinking can be applied to both cultural microevolution and macroevolution. However, much of the current literature focuses on cultural microevolution. In this article, we argue that the growing availability of large cross-cultural datasets facilitates the use of computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to answer broad-scale questions about the major transitions in human social organization.”

Got that? We have just seen three dozen eggheads pontificate about how culture evolved, and not one of them noticed a logical problem with what they are doing. They readily acknowledge problems within their framework, but not with the framework itself.

To understand our critique of this whole project, we recommend you first listen to three podcasts on ID the Future by Nancy Pearcey:

  • Is Reason Reliable? Interview with Nancy Pearcey (ID the Future)
  • Are Humans Really Robots? Nancy Pearson on the “Free Will Illusion” (ID the Future)
  • “Freeloading” Off of Religion: Nancy Pearcey on Materialism and Human Rights (ID the Future)

Image credit: Illustra Media

If you listened, you already hear the giant sucking sound of an implosion. These papers are classic examples of the problem she delineates: evolutionists never apply their theories to themselves! After all, they are humans aren’t they? They are members of a culture, aren’t they? They believe their bodies, brains and cultures originated by Darwin’s natural selection or some extensions of naturalistic evolution, don’t they? OK, then. Nothing they say is about truth. Nothing they say is about reason. Nothing they say is about logic. It’s all about their genes using them like marionettes on genetic strings.

To see why this is true, let’s write a satire about the origin of this PNAS series by natural selection. “Here, we review the field of evolutionists writing papers about cultural macroevolution as it pertains to the extension of biology through culture…. Our population is the class of evolutionists who write Darwin-style papers in PNAS…. As culture extends the scope of evolutionary biology in the great apes and dolphins, parallels can be seen in the mumblings of academics developing their cultural traits as it regards vocalizing Darwin quotes under selective pressures to publish or perish, or order to pass on their genes.

Game over.

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