Natural Selection of Culture?

Culture and the Evolutionary Process

by Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson
University of Chicago Press, 331 pp., $29.95

The formal similarities between biological evolution and human history have repeatedly tempted students of one topic to borrow ideas from the other. The most famous and fruitful example of borrowing by biologists of an idea from the human sciences was the use made, by both Darwin and Wallace, of Malthus’s picture of human competition for resources as a foundation for their own theory of evolution by natural selection. At a less exalted level, I have myself spent much of the last fifteen years applying the mathematical theory of games, first developed for use in economics, to solve problems in evolution. Indeed, I am by no means the only recent biologist to exploit mathematical economics as a source of ideas.

Biologists have, by and large, been eager to borrow ideas from the human sciences. Borrowing in the other direction is less well regarded. The reason for this ill repute is not far to seek: biological ideas have too often been used, not as potentially valuable research tools, but as a moral justification of policies that might otherwise seem dubious. The Social Darwinists, at the end of the last century, used Darwin’s ideas to justify laissez-faire capitalism and to oppose economic measures aimed at helping the underprivileged. More recently, the Nazis used biological terminology—they can hardly be said to have used biological ideas—to justify genocide. It would, however, be a great pity if this improper transfer of ideas from biology to the human sciences were to blind us to the possibilities of a fruitful transfer. Boyd and Richerson’s book, which offers a Darwinian theory of the evolution of culture—“the transmission from one generation to the next, via teaching and imitation, of knowledge, values, and other factors that influence behavior”—is the outcome of much hard and careful thinking. I approached it with a good deal of distrust and trepidation, but am persuaded that they have something of real value to offer.

It may be as well to start by explaining what they do not say. They are not offering a genetical interpretation of society. There are, in fact, two very different kinds of genetical interpretation possible. The first, and less plausible, is the view that the differences between societies are caused by genetic differences between the members of those societies. The most consistent proponent of that view, the late C.D. Darlington, went so far as to argue that language differences are in part caused by genetically determined differences in the vocal tract, and that what is wrong with British agriculture is that the farmers are too inbred.

Boyd and Richerson have little sympathy with this view, even in its less extreme forms. They think that the evidence tends to show that the genetic causes of cognitive and temperamental differences between races are of trivial importance. There is, however, a very different, but still genetical, view. This is that there are universal features of human nature that determine the nature of human societies. There is a sense in which this is obviously true.…

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