Consensus and Dissensus on Cultural Evolution

By Martin Hewson October 5, 2012 3 Comments

David Sloan Wilson detects signs of an emergent consensus around a broad notion of evolution which encompasses both genetic and cultural history and which recognizes as driving forces selection among groups, individuals, and genes.

I hope so. Movement in that direction would be welcome. The comprehensiveness of Wilson’s view of evolution is highly attractive. For students or general readers, faced with the many fragments of specialized knowledge and the rival claims of numerous specific theories, Wilson’s synthesis offers the possibility of the general understanding that so many seek. Scholars too need a broad conception of evolution if they are to find some way to overcome the barriers of the specialized disciplines. A hallmark of Wilson’s approach is its quest for balance. For all his emphasis on the evolutionary success of groups, Wilson balances this with awareness that groups are prone to breakdown into self-serving fragments. Though he stresses the selective pressure of competition between groups, he acknowledges similar pressures within groups too.

But, even if there is movement in that overall direction, I expect there will continue to be dissensus and debate over key issues.

One is adaptation. The moral connotations of the word adaption in human affairs are so strong that it will most likely continue to be a bone of contention. It is not too controversial to call cooperation, technology, or language adaptations because they are generally regarded as positive. Much more controversial would be any attempt to name warfare, or imperialism, or racism as adaptations. Consider religion. Wilson points out that his explanation of religion as an adaptation that binds people together in groups has been generally supported in the Strungmann Forum discussions. Yet, by contrast, the “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others) remain loathe to describe religion as adaptive. This is not because they are unaware of its binding effects but because the term adaptation connotes something of practical value. It may be noteworthy that in the excerpts Wilson cites from the Strungmann Forum, the word adaptation is absent.

Another likely point of debate concerns the question of just how cooperative is the human species. The overall tenor of Wilson’s discussion of cultural evolution is mildly progressive and optimistic. Wilson’s brief overview of human history begins with humans evolving to be much more cooperative than chimps, mentions next the advent of symbolic thought as an instance of growing cooperation, and interprets the main significance of agriculture as an opportunity for the most cooperative groups to spread. The overall direction of cultural evolution could well be summarized as “growing collaboration.” If so, the future portends yet more coordination, maybe towards a world community of some kind. But, this judgment is likely to remain controversial. It might be pointed out that Wilson tends not to dwell on the darker episodes in human history. In any case, future debate will probably continue to grapple with striking the appropriate balance between the pro- and anti-cooperative traits of humans.

In pursuit of a new consensus over cultural evolution, its directions and its driving forces, I hope that we will see a follow-up to the Strungmann Forum which provides a comparable overview of the state-of-the-art beyond the domains of social structure, technology, language, and religion to include other areas such as the evolution of the arts, marriage, civilizations, or war. Even if a broad consensus does arise, there is little danger that debate will subside over collateral issues concerning the shape of human history, the question of progress, and the prospects of the future. It is a sign of the importance of Wilson’s ideas that they prompt such fundamental questions.

Published On: October 5, 2012

Martin Hewson

Martin Hewson

Research interests
International Relations History of International Relations Macro-History of the World Order Global Governance Global Conflict, Warfare, and Security Comparative Foreign Policy International Relations Theory


  • Peter Turchin says:

    Martin Hewson is quite correct in pointing out that, in additon to the substantive issues, we need to pay attention to normative ones (roughly, the distinction between what is and what should be). Many scientific controversies, including one over multilevel selction, become unproductive because disputants mix the two. The process of group selection is Janus-like, with members of a cohesive group behaving in a nice, cooperative manner towards each other, while competing (all the way up to war and genocide) with members of other groups. Proponents of the adaptive view of religion, such as David Wilson, tend to point to religion’s benefits for within-group cooperation, while opponents tend to emphasize the between-group conflict.

  • Roy Niles says:

    Members within the smaller groups compete for status but cooperate for group safety and for carrying out group purposes in general. And if resources are scarce, they compete with other groups for them – but then cooperate to develop resources as well. Of course religion offers strategies and experiences that play a part in evolution, whether for the better or worse, but there is huge between-group cooperation in the East versus the West and at the same time within group aggression between sects. Nothing all that formulaic about any of it. Including about what could be good and therefor should be.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Hewson and the other respondents. These comments supplement my general reply to be posted soon.

    Adaptation is perhaps the most central concept in evolutionary theory. It is different from everyday usages of the same word, but these differences must be clarified and kept in mind, rather than avoiding the use of the word in evolutionary discourse. That is why books such as “Adaptation and Natural Selection” (G.C. Williams 1966) became classics. Your comments adaptation are therefore well taken, but they apply to evolutionary theory as a whole and are not restricted to multilevel selection theory.

    On cooperation, group selection favors any mechanism that increases the differential fitness of groups, only some of which appear cooperative or altruistic in the everyday sense of the word (back to the need to distinguish scientific terms from everyday definitions). It’s undeniable that the scale of human “groupishness” has grown over the millenia, but there have also been collapses and future increases in scale are by no means certain. I try to emphasize the dark side of multilevel selection (e.g., between-group conflict, coercive forms of social control) as much as the bright side and I co-edited an entire book on pathological altruism. Where’s the evidence that I “tend not to dwell on the darker sides of human history?” 🙁

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