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Not by Genes Alone

How Culture Transformed Human Evolution 
Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd
Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd
ISBN 0226712125

r.e. S. J. Gould. I don't agree here, either about their equating punctuated equlibria with “hopeful monsters” or by their exaggeration and then dismissal of “just so stories”. The former is I think just a misunderstanding of the palentological concept of “rapid”. The latter is wishful thinking based on their desire to engage in unchecked speculation. The narrative fallacy.

Probably this is a warning sign about the raising and dismissal of numerous other seemingly ludicrous ideas from people who I haven't read at length, or in most cases at all.

My thoughts: The importance of the emotional and subconscious nature of the instinctual influence on decision making. w.r.t. the Judgment and decision making literature, surely some of those weaknesses are due to cognitive limitations (e.g. narrative and memory), whereas others may be “deliberate” and “works better if you don't know about it” biases that promote social evoluation. This is in fact an interesting case study about the just-so-story.

Look at advertising. It's all about exploiting our judgment and decision-making biases to influence our behavior in ways that we don't understand and won't make us happy and may or may not benefit society.

They do have the basic framework of cultural and biological co-evolution leading to social instincts and emotions. They flesh out in some interesting ways the idea that the result may not increase fitness (reproductive success.) Their general argument for why some cultural variants may be pathological from a genetic reproductive success perspective is that the capacity for culture evolved because it did increase genetic fitness, but it is not feasible (or was anyway not achieved) to genetically fine-tune the our instincts so as to be able to avoid pathological cultural variants. Also cultural evolution is faster than genetic, so it can tend to work around our genetic defenses faster than they can adapt. In other words they generally agree that the apparently non-adaptive really is non-adaptive, but they differ from the “big mistake” theory of the evolutionary psychologists in that they expect that humans were always prone to non-adaptive cultural variants, whereas the “big mistake” says that our psychology was highly adaptive back in the good old days.

I certainly like this story better than the “big mistake” which seems to lead to so many tenuous just-so-stories about how behaviors could have been adaptive (or at least tolerated) in some conveniently contrived paleolithic scenario that seems to show considerable ignorance of the realities of hunter-gatherer living.

Interestingly they also hit on the idea of demographic transition as something needing to be explained here, and in fact they see it as the most prominent non-adaptive cultural pathology. Social success has become inversely correlated with reproductive success.

But one of my major themes is that things that appear stupid may actually be adaptive in some holistic sense. They do embrace this to some degree in that they fairly convincingly argue that (in particular) true altruism can arise in the genetic/cultural co-evolution, which is from an observational standpoint evidently true, however theoretically problematic it may be to some.

A big question is whether modern social structure can be considered in some sense holistically adaptive even though it takes the reproductive sacrifice to extremes. It seems fairly clear that super-strivers who have sacrificed reproductive success for high status have been a big driver of change in modern times. It seems that Richerson and Boyd more or less agree with the “big mistake” school that this is somehow out of balance in that literacy and then modern media have hypertrophied the non-parental transmission of culture and this has thrown off the sensible emphasis on having babies of pre-modern cultures.

One interesting area is how they see the family. I am certainly interested in going a lot farther there. One thing is that they with no real discussion jumped to the idea that only non-parental cultural influences can be genetically maladaptive. At the time they introduce this idea they do allow that in time parents come to advocate the cultural views even if they do reduce their own reproductive success, but they quickly leave this thread and subsequently assume that non-genetically-adaptive implies non-parental. Of course the parents are also carriers of selfish cultural variants, but they seem to assume that the parents genetic interests should outweigh their cultural interests

This does however lead to the fascinating connection of two seemingly unrelated aspects of “family values”, as strongly exemplified by the Amish. That is the conjunction valuing large families, investment in reproduction, satisfaction in supporting a family, etc., with the emphasis on the CONTROL OF MASS CULTURAL COMMUNICATION, e.g. media exposure, schools, etc., and also the likely presence of non-materialistic non-striving values. The control of the external influences (non-parental as they say) is crucial to maintaining the genetically adaptive pro-natal culture.

It also their claim that parents have little cultural influence, which they acknowledge is at odds with common perception. Judith Rich Harris, “The nurture assumption” They argue that the similarity of children to parents is genetic, though the study they mention seemed to only look at big-five personality traits which I am quite willing to believe are strongly genetic. This is also much at odds with my theory of the family culture with secret competitive advantages. It may be that this minimal parental influence really is true in the contemporary US, and perhaps in post-industrial cultures in general, but that this is due to the specifically modern confluence of the hypertrophy of media influences with the parental abdication of child-rearing because of the greater weight on striving vs. parenting.

Generally I am much more interested in using cultural/genetic co-evolution to explain psychological mysteries than they seem to be. They seem to have devoted most of the effort to explaining non-genetically-adaptive human behaviors including the well known problem of altruism, and also the less widely appreciated pathologies such as demographic transition. That is, they are more interested in explaining human behavior to evolutionists than to psychologists. This program is admittedly an easier road because they explain previously identified important evolutionary problems such as altruism and also articulate less understood problems that are also clearly difficult for the genetic-only approach.

In contrast, my general impression in psychology, especially in psychotherapy (where they are more concerned with emotions, mate choice and family structure) that it is considered adequate to codify human behavior, and there is little perception of a need for evolutionary explanation.

I think that because of its crucial role in modern culture, status striving needs to be better understood. In particular, they adequately explain why we imitate high-status (prestigious, successful) individuals, but they don't really attempt to explain why people go to such great cost to display status, to the point of making false displays, raising the whole issue of status displays needing to be expensive and hard to fake. They do note with some amusement/puzzlement they extremes that status displays (giant yams, hummers) are taken to, but only observe that it is some sort of competitive escalation, without saying why anyone is driven to this. They seem to gloss over the whole “relative good”, competitive aspect to status, and in particular, over the subjective experience and motivational structure of the striver.

Their observation of the importance of group membership symbols is important. I may have been confusing membership displays with status displays, though it may also be that they can overlap.

They also fail to observe the plausibility of a post-reproductive program.

They do use family structure as an example of a thing that people tend to be conservative about because it is difficult to try out alternatives.

They seem to be familiar with the judgment and decision-making literature, but use it mainly to argue the weakness of human cognitive abilities, leading to the need to use imitation and simple rules of who to imitate. An interesting angle here is that some of these “weaknesses” may actually either be pro-social or adaptive, considering the psychological immune system, the importance of unconscious decision-making, and the fact that language and hence social interaction seems to be a big driver of the conscious part of decision making (the rationalization part.) Related to this, I should read what Trivers and others have to say on self-deception.

It is clear from the “taking for granted” relative aspect of happiness that maintaining a moderate baseline level of happiness is the human condition. But it may be that there is a “big mistake” aspect of the modern condition related to striving and happiness. Perhaps in a “state of nature” when the striving was more under control and family values were dominant, that people were happier. Certainly it is a cliche that, late in life, strivers often wish they had invested more in their families.

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books/not_by_genes_alone.txt · Last modified: 2010/05/08 23:17 by ram