On Cultural and Technological Selection
Jul 14, 2011

On Cultural and Technological Selection

In my previous post, regarding the Hydraulic Thesis's role in history, I referred somewhat vaguely to the idea of competitive pressures selecting for groups that had adopted the more advantageous hydraulic technologies. Comparisons with Darwinian biological evolution have some level of applicability and offer some level of insight into the 'evolution' of societies. However, the comparisons are not exact and it is important to be somewhat more precise about exactly what the comparison is.

The main clarification I wish to make is that the fundamentally unit of selection (the 'genes' or 'alleles', if you will) is not a group of people, but a particular cultural motif, technological idea, or similar element of society that is reproducible in other societies. Colloquially, one often refers to groups being in competition with each other (because it is so apparently so). Just as Darwinian natural selection is a competition between fundamental units of selections, genes, and not actually between individuals who carry the genes, so too is it here where the societal development analogue of genes is the cultural/technological ideas and thinking in terms of competing groups is as wrong as thinking in terms of competing individuals is. 

There is a separate concept called "group selection"' where the fundamental unit of selection actually is a group. A group spawns various daughter groups with slight variations in cultural and social make up - alleles - who then are more or less likely to succeed and in turn spawn daughter groups. One can imagine as an example of this a village on a river system which as it grows expels subgroups of itself who make their own, largely similar, villages in nearby areas. That said, while this concept exists a priori it is not at all clear it is a meaningful concept in practice. Namely, changes between the collection of groups (tribes, say) in a geographical area occurs in a myriad of quite different ways. The daughter villages are usually a fraction of the size of the original, conquest determines so much of the makeup, and factors of geography and environment are too deterministic in the short term, to name but a few factors. The result is that there are not many good examples where one group, whether it is a small village or civilization, produces an array of very similar allele daughter groups to which competitive pressures can play out on a relevant timescale.

Instead, it is the various cultural and technological units - memes, if you like - that are the unit of selection. A technology such as newly domesticated sheep, for instance, can spread quite easily among a diverse population of groups as they adopt the technology. The groups can be vastly different in all sorts of different ways, but they can all in principle adopt the new technological meme. The cultural/technological units have a much higher practical copying fidelity compared to groups being the chief unit which are rarely copied with high fidelity. As such, it is the former which is the appropriate comparison to Darwinian evolution and ought to form the basis of a selection analysis to cultural evolution. In the case of the Hydraulic Thesis, the unit was the set of technology (both hydraulic technology and the technology of a state, something I argued went autocatalytically hand in hand) that could be reproduced, if found successful, in a variety of groups. A wide category of religious ideas, social structures, technologies and the like are all open to such considerations.

As indicated earlier, the role that groups play is the comparison to individuals in Darwinian natural selection. They are essentially bodies in which the true unit of selection, cultural/technological ideas, take residence. Bodies are nothing more than fancy propagating mechanisms for the genes they carry (if we wish to anthropomorphize we could say their "purpose" is to carry out the gene's "desire" to propagate), things like big teeth or rational thinking are simply effective mechanisms to carry out this role. Moreover, bodies are the result of a wide array of different genes each of which influences the nature of the body and each of which becomes more or less frequent in the gene pool based on their relative tendencies towards success. In comparison, groups in our sense are fancy propagating mechanisms for the set of various ideas and technologies that are exhibited by the group. An idea which makes the group more effective propagators - a technology useful in war, say - will thus propagate; that group then rises in relative prominence and other groups imitate the technology.

The comparison is not exact, of course, one reason for which is that groups do not form homogenous, discrete units for cultural or technological expression. A small village may, for instance, may be all of the same religion and thus be an appropriate unit for the expression of that religious idea but they may have very different views on some other cultural or technological aspect. In general, however, groups while often defined by a geographic correspondence nonetheless typically exhibit sufficient levels of homogeneity in ideas relative to other groups to be relevant as vessels for expression of ideas.

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