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SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM
Each Of You Is A Multitude
Our picture of life is going through a major shift. Ed Yong's book I Contain Multitudes reveals that the grand game of genes and genomes isn't played quite like we'd thought (e.g. a genome generally doesn’t contain all the genes an organism needs, symbiosis isn’t rare, it's the rule).
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An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science
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                    [post_content] => After decades of debate on the seemingly irreconcilable differences between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of the sciences and humanities, David Sloan Wilson suggests that we are now seeing real signs of the barriers being broken down. In their place, we are seeing the emergence of a united, “One Culture”, in which any and all disciplines can be united around a common framework of understanding. Not least, the study of evolutionary heritage and change—in both its biological and cultural manifestations—has huge importance and implications for our understanding and theorizing about human thought, behavior, and our interactions with each other and our environment. I am greatly honored that David highlighted my book laying out an evolutionary theory of the origins of religion (often considered a no-go area for science) as one of the four examples of such a merging of disciplinary approaches. Reading the commentaries on David’s essay so far, there are clearly more battles to be fought. However, rather than entering the fray directly, here I want to draw our attention to another front opening up on the horizon—a different set of battles that, to win, the Two Cultures will have to bury the hatchet and face together. In doing so, I think we will be forced to leave the Two Cultures behind, as well as discovering that the One Culture is the way ahead.

Last week, I attended one the most interesting meetings of the year. It was the “Cecil Summit”, an emergency meeting in Oxford bringing together biologists, conservationists, economists, political scientists, and social entrepreneurs to knock their heads together to work out how to solve an urgent problem: saving the African lion from extinction. “Save”, you might wonder? It is not well known that, in comparison to widely publicized campaigns to conserve rhinos and elephants, for example, there are even fewer African lions remaining than these other iconic species. They have declined at an alarming rate across most of their range, now down to a mere 10% or so of its historical distribution, and precariously fragmented across the parks and dwindling habitat of several different countries.[1]

The conference was hosted by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)[2], and its high-energy director David Macdonald. “Cecil” was the name of one of WildCRU’s GPS-collared study animals whose death last year, at the hands of a Minnesotan dentist armed with a bow and arrow, was widely reported around the world. WildCRU’s and Oxford’s websites experienced the highest volume of traffic in the university’s history. In the wake of this public outcry about the untimely death of a majestic lion, the conference was designed to ask how we could take this “Cecil moment” of widespread public interest into a “Cecil movement”—a sustained commitment to reverse the decline of the African lion and preserve its heritage for the future.

Now what of the One Culture debate? The problem of the Cecil Summit was, quite clearly, not a problem of biology. It is a problem of people, and the interaction of people and their environment. The lion biologists present rattled off an impressive synopsis of lion studies that have been conducted across Africa for many decades. They know all about lions, track many of their daily movements from satellites, and know in great detail a range of methods to conserve them. The difficult part is implementing these methods of saving the lion from extinction in the face of a burgeoning and rapidly developing human population that needs space to expand and land to grow food. The burning question put to the conference was thus how to preserve what is, for those communities who live alongside them, a dangerous predator and livestock rustler in a continent with the highest levels of poverty and a population set to double from 1 to 2 billion in the next 50 years. As became strikingly clear, this is simply not a question that scientists are able to tackle on their own. Without the input of representatives of the other, non-science culture, they will fail. Like many of the significant challenges we face in the 21st century—biodiversity loss, climate change, energy, poverty, managing food and water resources—science is “only” the background info we need in order to make informed decisions. The tricky part comes next: getting from scientific ideas to policy that politicians can sell and people will accept.

I suggest that the many global challenges that we are being forced to tackle, by merging science and policy, will in themselves help to break down the barriers between the Two Cultures. Indeed, they must if they are to succeed. This suggests a different take on the One Culture debate. The reconciliation of hardened ideologies about the relative values of science and arts may not happen within the academy. Indeed, academics have many reasons to resist it, especially as science departments inexorably expand while many social science and humanities departments are suffering severe decline. There is tangible real estate that must be defended if it is to survive. Rather, I see the One Culture forming somewhere else—at the coalface of real world challenges where disciplinary defenses have long been cast aside in the service of solving practical problems.

The One Culture also has another significant source of vitality: a new generation of soldiers. The global challenges outlined above are not in fact going to be solved by us—the ageing academic cadre who grew up with the sociobiology and post-structuralist debates of the 70s, 80s, and after. Instead, these challenges are going to be solved by the students coming up through the system now, students who as far as I can tell are far less resistant to interdisciplinary thinking than their forebears have been before them. For them, the world is a dynamic and interconnected place, where disciplinary approaches and tools of analysis are much more visibly merging and intersecting. This should be no surprise with the internet, social media, globalization, and the increasing sophistication of analytical methods across all disciplines. While the next generation still understand and appreciate fundamental differences in philosophical backgrounds and methodological approaches between the arts and sciences, to me they seem far more interested in taking the good bits of both worlds and using them to be creative in the pursuit of new challenges.

I may be biased (or lucky) with the students I know. But the ones I have here in Oxford are often way more interdisciplinary than me, in their thinking, their educational backgrounds, and their aspirations. Several of them have moved across departments, and across faculties, within and across universities. If we in the older generation have been testing the boundaries of the Two Cultures in recent years, these youngsters often seem to stampede across them with reckless abandon. I’m not sure they would even recognize the Two Cultures problem as we do. While David rightly calls us to rethink and celebrate signs of the One Culture emerging out of the Two, I wonder if we may be merely charting the tail end of an old debate—a debate that happened to be particularly important to our generation, but one that is on a path to extinction. It will no doubt remain a subject of academic interest for some time to come (and thus by definition, not of particular interest to the average global citizen), but I suggest it will partly become superseded by events and urgent demands of the day. If we are to tackle such complex problems such as climate change, poverty, terrorism, and war, then we will not only need to involve “both” cultures, but to renounce them.

The One Culture is not merely a vision of how academia could or should join forces to produce a more unified framework for understanding the world and our place in it. Rather, my argument is that creating One Culture is going to become an absolute necessity if we are to address and solve the many lethal challenges to the planet and its inhabitants in the future. As populations expand and resources dwindle, every major problem is accumulating a significant and complex human dimension. Workable solutions require strategies that take into account history, religion, psychology, politics, culture, identity, the arts, and numerous other human concerns as much as science. The scientists cannot deal with these multifaceted problems alone, but will need help from people from both of the Two Cultures tribes. Of course, interdisciplinary teams have long been important in addressing big problems, from public health and international development to urban planning and space exploration. But the scale and urgency of such complex problems, especially at the global level, is making interdisciplinarity a more common and much more pressing need.

David highlighted the utility and value of stepping outside disciplinary boundaries. I strongly endorse this and, in this article, merely tried to identify two new sources driving the change: global challenges that demand a One Culture approach, and a next generation of scholars and practitioners that bear all the hallmarks of belonging to One Culture already. Having lauded this change, I should caution that the Two Cultures “problem” is still very much an obstacle to achieving it. Because of the severe demands on young academics to publish, find jobs, and gain tenure, there are many reasons to retrench into one of the two cultures and play it safe. One Culture may be “good for the group” (humanity), but there can be costs to individual self-interest in waving the flag too high (interdisciplinary scholars falling between the disciplinary cracks). Although I have enjoyed and benefitted immensely from traversing disciplinary boundaries, I have increasingly observed a variety of back-room resistance and sometimes hostility to those trying to do so. In hindsight, it was an extremely risky strategy that paid off for me, but which I generally encourage my own students to avoid. It is so much easier and safer to be a straight-down-the-line academic with a single home discipline and department, and to teach, stack up publications, and develop expertise in a specific area. Fortunately for the One Culture, most of my students have diligently ignored this advice, spurred on as they are by the practical utility of joining one big, powerful tribe.

Only a big, powerful tribe can save the lion, just one of the many global challenges to come.

References
[1] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/48/14894.abstract

[2] https://www.wildcru.org

 

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Image via Flickr/daughter3986851963
                    [post_title] => Divided We Fall: The One Culture, the Next Generation, and 21st Century Challenges
                    [post_excerpt] => Dominic Johnson suggests that the many global challenges that we are being forced to tackle, by merging science and policy, will in themselves help to break down the barriers between the Two Cultures.
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Let me begin with what I find commendable in David Sloan Wilson’s “The One Culture”: its irenic spirit.  He wants science and the humanities to cooperate in the study of human culture.  An advocate of science, in particular evolutionary theory, he acknowledges misuses of evolutionary theory and credits what traditional humanists have to say about culture, for instance, the work humanists “have done…on symbolic thought.”  I wish he had specified the misuses of evolutionary theory.  He is right to criticize contemporary practitioners of the humanities who dismiss the possibility of objective knowledge.  “Relativism becomes self-contradictory and useless when it denies the possibility of objective knowledge.”  I am a humanist, and not alone, in my belief in objective knowledge as necessary to the practice of both the sciences and humanities.

I’m not sure I understand Wilson’s advocacy of The One Culture.  It is a response to C.P Snow’s “Two Cultures.”  Snow’s target was literary culture, which he faulted for being ignorant of science and backward looking, a dubious generalization.  He was not, however, advocating The One Culture, whatever that means.  Does Wilson mean that humanists and scientists in their cooperative enterprises occupy a single culture and that there are no cultural differences between disciplines?  Or is he referring to the human culture being studied?  If so, why is the object of that study, as he claims, cultural diversity?  Wilson speaks of culture in the anthropological sense, certainly a long-standing, legitimate subject of scientific study without objection from humanists.  He cites the study of religion: “Religious beliefs and practices might be just as irrational and wasteful as they seem and persist as by products of psychological and social processes that are useful in non religious contexts.”  As he notes, this insight into the communal function of religion goes back to Emile Durkheim, who “posited” that “most enduring religions are useful in non religious contexts.”  Wilson reasonably views human development as the product of a dual inheritance, genetic and cultural.  Here he would be at odds with anthropologists (cultural constructivists) who insist on culture as the exclusive or primary cause.

Absent from Wilson’s discussion is Literary Darwinism, a discipline of evolutionary psychology that has as an object of study high literary culture. Here is where literary humanists put up resistance, but not necessarily because of hostility to scientific approaches to literature and the arts.  There are humanists who are hostile to science just as there are scientists who are hostile to the humanities.  I believe, however, that most humanists, and I count myself among them, who despite their limited knowledge of the sciences value science and the extraordinary accomplishments of scientists.  Where would we be without physics, chemistry and biology?  What I and fellow humanists resist is the imperial ambition of certain evolutionary psychologists and their followers, mostly in literary studies, to subsume the disciplines of the humanities under their conception of evolutionary theory.  We don’t foreclose the possibility of scientific contributions to an understanding of literature and the arts, but are repelled by the unearned judgment displayed, for example, in Joseph Carroll’s response to Wilson’s essay.  Where Wilson is respectful of the humanities in his attempt to bring science and the humanities together in joint enterprises, Carroll is contemptuous in his characterization of the semi-official creed of the humanities as irrationalist, anti-foundationalist, in effect reducing the richness and complexity of the humanist tradition to its perversion.  (As I have made clear elsewhere in my work, I am no admirer of the theoretical and ideological obsessions that occupy much of literary study these days.)   Unlike Wilson, Carroll doesn’t seem to envisage coexistence between disciplines.  Carroll goes on to say that “humanists will need to alter the fundamental features in the whole conceptual structure in which they operate,” assuming that there is a single structure and without specifying the single structure he has in mind.  There is no acknowledgment of the accomplishments of distinguished critics and scholars, past and present, who in different ways have illuminated individual works, genres and traditions: A.C. Bradley on Shakespeare, T. Eliot and formalist critics on the metaphysical poets, cultural critics such as Lionel Trilling and Raymond Williams on English social criticism of the nineteenth-century, Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky and Frank Kermode on a wide range of subjects.  These are examples of a much longer list. What evolutionary theory at the present time offers in the way of an understanding of literature and the arts is paltry by comparison.

In my book, Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities (2007), I made the case against what passes for Literary Darwinism.  I cited vulgar versions, such as Steven Pinker’s characterization of the pleasures of literature as “mental cheesecake” and the even more egregious example of David and Nanelle Barash’s Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, in which the deep truth of Emma Bovary’s character is that she is a “horny woman.”  Carroll, to be sure, repudiates such commentary.  He has shown himself to be a competent critic in work on Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens.  Here is what I say of his discussion of Pride and Prejudice.  “He has sensible, though not particularly original things to say, which, one should note, do not depend on an application of evolutionary theory.  ‘Austen mocks false status---rank and wealth unsupported by education, wit, manner and character—but she ultimately affirms the authority of legitimate social status as that represented by the normative couple, Elizabeth and Darcy.’  Nor do we need evolutionary theory when he tells us that ‘irony is a fundamental and pervasive literary device designed for the purpose of detecting and exposing hypocrisy and deceit.’ It needs to be said that very little of the vitality and wit of Pride and Prejudice gets into Carroll’s account of the novel.  [His} complaint about traditional criticism, ‘which operates at the level of Austen’s own lexicon…is that it seeks no systematic reduction to simple principles that have large general validity.’ This hardly seems a deficiency.  The alternative that Carroll and his fellow Darwinists are proposing is the dissolution of the individuality of the work (the very reason we enjoy and value it) into a large generalization that removes all of its distinctive feature and vitality.” Without an understanding and appreciation of a writer’s lexicon, the experience of literature is lost. To which I would add: so-called traditional criticism does not eschew generalizations about genre, traditions and narrative.  At its best, what it tries to do is to make those generalizations illuminate the diversity of literary and artistic expression.  I would welcome large generalizations from evolutionary theory that would complement and illuminate literature and the arts, not simply serve the interests of the theory.

Carroll bitterly complains about the inhospitality of the Modern Languages Association to his campaign for Literary Darwinism, but he finds consolation in the prospect that his humanist adversaries will die.  Evolutionary theorists and humanists agree that sooner or later, we all die, Joseph Carroll as well as Eugene Goodheart.
                    [post_title] => David Sloan Wilson and Joseph Carroll on Science and the Humanities
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                    [post_content] => As a student in the late 1960s, I took up anthropology because I was looking for a subject that would bridge the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities in a way that nevertheless remains close to the realities of human experience. Almost half a century later, this is still the reason why I study anthropology. In the course of my endeavours I have ranged widely and read deeply across biological, psychological and anthropological approaches to culture and social life, and have contributed to fields as diverse as prehistoric archaeology, evolutionary linguistics, human geography, material culture studies, art, architecture and design. I suppose this should make me an example of the kind of scholar that David Sloan Wilson would like us all to be: well-read across a range of fields, both scientific and humanistic, and able to move with ease across the boundaries between them.

But the experience has also taught me to be suspicious of those who come bearing new paradigms promising the earth so long as we sign up to them. They invariably turn out to be antiquated, banal and cliché-ridden, their longevity matched only by their proponents’ conviction that they stand at the cutting edge of science. One of these ideas, endlessly rehashed over the past century and more, is that there is a parallel between biological inheritance and cultural heritage. News to anthropologists? Certainly not. For us it is long-discredited old hat. Most sensible social and cultural anthropologists effectively abandoned the idea some fifty years ago because it made no sense of the phenomena we were dealing with and served only to reproduce a colonial distinction between western-educated scientists who study culture and everyone else who lives in them. We, at least, have moved on.

Let me explain why the paradigm of evolutionary science that Sloan Wilson advocates seems to me to be an intellectual dead-end. Forty years ago, in 1986, I brought out a book entitled Evolution and Social Life (recently reissued as a Routledge Classic, Ingold 2016). The book explored the history of the idea of evolution in anthropology, biology and history from the mid-nineteenth century until recent times. I began with Darwin, Morgan, Tylor, Marx and Durkheim and ended with sociobiology and gene-culture coevolution (this was before the days of evolutionary psychology). The book was long and heavy-going, and ultimately, it failed. It failed because I had attempted to synthesise what a biology forged on neo-Darwinian principles was telling us about human biocultural evolution with what I knew from social anthropology about persons and social relations. By the end of writing it, I realised this couldn’t be done.

The problem is this. The kind of evolutionary science advocated by Sloan Wilson and the authors whose books he reviews requires a kind of ‘population thinking’ (the phrase comes from Ernst Mayr) according to which every living organism is a discrete, externally bounded entity, one of a population of such entities, and relating to other organisms in its environment along lines of external contact that leave its basic, internally specified nature unaffected. Whether the specification is genetic or cultural, or some mixture of the two, is immaterial: the logic remains the same. In writing Evolution and Social Life I had assumed that my task was not to challenge accepted biological wisdom but to reconcile it with what contemporary anthropology has to teach us about the constitution of human beings as persons. This is that the identities, characteristics and dispositions of persons are not bestowed upon them in advance of their involvement with others but are the condensations of histories of growth and maturations within fields of relationships. Thus every person emerges as a locus of development within such a field, which is in turn carried on and transformed through their own actions.

The trouble is that understanding persons in this way calls for a kind of ‘relational thinking’ that, though well established in social anthropology, goes right against the grain of the population thinking of neo-Darwinian, evolutionary science. Only by supposing that person and organism are entirely separate components of human being could one possibly entertain both ways of thinking at once. Such a split-level view of the human, however, is manifestly unsustainable. That’s why my attempts at synthesis finally failed. Only later did it dawn on me that if persons are organisms, then the principles of relational thinking – far from being restricted to the domain of human sociality – must be applicable across the entire continuum of organic life, and that this would require a radically alternative biology. If every organism is not so much a discrete entity as a node in a field of relationships, then we have to think in a new way not only about the interdependence of organisms and their environments but also about their evolution. My work has been guided by this aim ever since.

I am by no means alone in advocating a relational biology. Plenty of heterodox thinkers, especially developmental biologists, have been pursuing similar ideas for many years. Indeed, given that there are vastly more practising biologists than there are anthropologists, the absolute number of dissenting voices is probably greater in biology than in anthropology and all the other human sciences put together, even though they remain in the minority in their own discipline. It is therefore absurd to dismiss all opposition to neo-Darwinian evolutionary science as anti-scientific humanism. The majority of dissenters are card-carrying scientists. What I and they object to is not science but scientism. Science is a rich patchwork of knowledge which comes in an astonishing variety of different forms. Scientism is a doctrine, or a system of beliefs, founded on the assertion that scientific knowledge takes only one form, and that this form has an unrivalled and universal claim to truth. Thus the debate is not between biologists committed to science and humanists who reject it; it is rather between the cult of scientism and those who are prepared to adopt a more open-ended and less complacent approach to scientific inquiry.

Sloan Wilson’s ignorance of contemporary work in the humanities is both profound and shocking; paraded as a virtue, it is intolerable. So far as he is concerned, the only role for sociocultural anthropologists, historians, human geographers, scholars of language and literature, philosophers, and all the rest is to gather up the material – to ‘compile the vast storehouse of information’ – for scientists to process. This processing generally involves a two-stage procedure: first, the formal redescription of the data in terms of models; secondly, the conversion of models into ‘ultimate’ explanations by appeal to the logic of natural selection. That scholars in the humanities might have credible objections to this procedure is beyond Sloan Wilson’s comprehension. For him, evolutionary science is a creed and anyone who objects is simply an infidel. I will not argue with zealots.

Reference:
Ingold, T. (2016). Evolution and Social Life (new edition). London: Routledge [original 1986, Cambridge University Press].
                    [post_title] => Steps Toward a Relational Biology
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                    [post_content] => Consider the question: What is a human being? The question is phrased in such a way that it seems to call for an objective, scientific answer, and we may begin answering it by speaking about homo sapiens as a small twig on a larger branch on the great tree of life, the product of natural and sexual selection, created by chance and necessity through the aeons of biological evolution.

However, the question may be asked differently: What does it mean to be a human being? In this case, a rather different set of answers are generated, and among the great Victorians, it may well be the case that Dickens, or Marx, would offer more useful cues than that other towering nineteenth-century figure.

Or consider a brief encounter, in front of the coffee machine, between two colleagues working in the same department, a biological and a sociocultural anthropologist. The biological anthropologist says, ‘You know, the difference between the two of us is that I work with facts whereas you work with interpretations.’ The sociocultural anthropologist, nonplussed, responds: ‘Yes, but your facts are also interpretations.’ Both immediately set out, steaming mugs aloft, towards their respective offices. End of discussion.

These are the kinds of intellectual gridlocks that David Sloan Wilson tries to overcome in his eloquent and thought-provoking review essay. Rather than Snow's two cultures – ships passing in the night, Wittgensteinian duck-rabbits, unfinished bridges – he argues that time is ripe to merge the two into a single unifying paradigm enabling the study of all things human within a shared scientific framework. After forty-plus years of ‘science wars’, beginning with the controversies following the 1975 publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, how far have we progressed? In (D.S.) Wilson's view, quite a bit, indeed far enough to announce the coming of a new synthesis. Evolutionary theorists have come to appreciate the significance of language, metaphor and symbolism as decisive factors in human life; and many working in the humanities acknowledge the need to understand our evolutionary heritage in order to grasp the significance of the products of the human mind such as art and literature.

As the four books reviewed by Wilson indicate, radical interdisciplinarity fusing discrete branches of knowledge about humanity can lead to genuinely new insights, and it is needed. This is not to say that the vision of The One Culture is not without its challenges.

Notably, methods and approaches depend on the problem at hand. Wilson claims that cultural anthropology has produced largely descriptive knowledge; that it is a pre-paradigmatic science (in Kuhn's sense) in search of its Newton or Darwin. This is a somewhat uncharitable view; 20th century sociocultural anthropology saw the development and not always peaceful coexistence of a string of strong theoretical programmes, ranging from crude materialist determinism via various branches of Marxism to the highly sophisticated and universalist theory of the mind called structuralism and methodological individualism premised on the theory of games. What is true, however, is that the academic community was unable to coalesce around one unifying paradigm or theory.

The main reason is that the questions differed. Some asked what is it that makes people do whatever it is that they do, while others asked what made societies work; some asked about the origins and causes of inequality, while others were interested in the workings of the mind. They arranged their toolbox accordingly. Wilson is right in suggesting that evolutionary theory would enrich and sharpen each of these theoretical approaches, but it is better seen as a loose framework than a universal acid. Scientific endeavours to understand humanity better succeed not so much as a result of shared methodologies or axioms as through their ability to stimulate the intellectual imagination. Wilson's own theory of multilevel selection is an excellent example; by asking, in a critical spirit, what ought to be seen as the appropriate level of selection, he enabled others to ask new questions to their material. Similarly, the ecosystem approach to evolution – or, at an even higher level, a planetary ‘Gaia’ perspective on life on earth – generates yet a different set of questions and answers.

None of these approaches, from methodological individualism to a systemic view of evolution, are incompatible with the basic principles of selectionism, and the books reviewed by Wilson indicate some ways in which the social sciences may benefit from evolutionary theory. The loose, shared framework I have in mind may be described as a weak functionalism. In early-20th century social anthropology, a strong and a weak functionalist programme competed for hegemony. Malinowski argued for a direct relationship between human needs and sociocultural institutions that satisfied them, in other words that the institutions existed to satisfy needs. His rival Radcliffe-Brown argued, rather, that the long-term survival of institutions and practices hinged on their ability to satisfy needs, but that this did not explain their existence in the first place. The latter perspective is compatible with Darwinian selectionism, while the first has more than a hint of teleology (placing the cart in front of the horse). In other words, for institutions and practices to survive in the long term, they must be functional (in the sense of being adaptive), but any institutional arrangement comes about, stabilises and evolves through trial and error (although conscious planning is, naturally, also involved). So far, there is compatibility between evolutionary theory and social science, and it is perfectly possible to ask credible and relevant questions about the mechanisms of selection at work in the growth and decline of social institutions and indeed entire societies. And there are many other promising areas for collaboration between social scientists or humanities scholars and evolutionary scholars, the minimum requirement on both sides being openness, curiosity and a willingness to listen. As for myself, I have written two books with the biologist Dag O. Hessen (in Norwegian), about selfishness and the ‘red queen’ effect, without encountering serious issues of mutual incomprehension or incommensurability.

However, these and other areas of convergence do not solve the question of commensurability once and for all, since sociocultural anthropologists ask other kinds of questions as well. Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated that ‘existence precedes essence’, indicating that we choose our actions as free agents; and Clifford Geertz once described man, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘a self-defining animal’. Many anthropologists are concerned with understanding (rather than explaining) what it is like to be an X, Y or Z. This calls for interpretive, phenomenological methods; religion, then, becomes a belief system to be understood from within rather than a social institution to be explained from without. A currently lively debate in anthropology concerns the appropriate way of understanding Amazonian cosmologies which do not posit a contrast between nature and culture. In such cases, evolutionary theory does not come across as wrong, just irrelevant.

I do not share Wilson's view that the era of building bridges is soon over in so far as we have come to realise that we live on the same island: Qualitatively different ways of knowing continue to exist, and rightly so. As my colleague Adam Kuper once said, we are all Darwinists now – but this does not mean that Darwinism (or evolutionary perspectives in a wider sense) can provide an adequate metodology for exploring all the questions we might want to raise about the human condition. However, and more importantly, Wilson convincingly argues, in this review essay and elsewhere, that the expanded toolkit of evolutionary science, with its ever more sophisticated approaches to meaning-creation and symbolism, group cohesion and systemic processes, creates exciting opportunities for the kind of radical interdisciplinarity we need in order to improve our understanding of anthropos.

 
                    [post_title] => The promise of radical interdisciplinarity
                    [post_excerpt] => The expanded toolkit of evolutionary science, with its ever more sophisticated approaches to meaning-creation and symbolism, group cohesion and systemic processes, creates exciting opportunities for the kind of radical interdisciplinarity we need in order to improve our understanding of human beings.
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                    [post_content] => I remember the exciting debates in the early days of HBES (the Human Behavior and Evolution Society) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when upstart David Wilson debated group (multilevel) selection with the grand masters of the conference, authorities such as George Williams and Richard Alexander.  That was nearly thirty years ago, and the opposition seemed to me (an evolutionary novice) formidable. It is truly gratifying to see how the subject of human behavior and evolution has expanded and been refined during those decades. And now D. S. Wilson is one of the luminaries. It is true that we build upon the shoulders of giants, and hone our new ideas on the seemingly impermeable armor that they wore in their time.

It is equally gratifying to find evidence, as in the four books under review, that the humanities (“the study of how people process and document the human experience”) are at last successfully becoming the object of scientific inquiry. If one includes the arts (which I might describe as “the ways that people emotionally express and transmit the human experience”) then I am not so sure that evolutionary scientists have yet paid sufficient attention to their contributions to the mechanisms of heredity listed by Wilson as essential to understanding human cultural evolution—epigenetic mechanisms, forms of social learning, and forms of symbolic thought.

If we think of the arts as more than individual objects or modern masterpieces (the usual subjects for studies of “art” by scholars of neuroaesthetics and evolutionary aesthetics) and include body ornamentation, costume, masks, dancing, singing, chanting, drumming or otherwise keeping time, performing, altering the environment, speaking poetically—often all or most of these performed concurrently, and if we think of all or most members of a group participating at the same time, we can begin to wonder why this sort of activity has been so important in tribal societies of the recent (and plausibly the ancestral) past.

As Wilson writes, we are the only species on earth that can transmit learned information across generations, but it has escaped attention that this transmission in non-literate societies is frequently due to ceremonies that are composed of arts. Take away the décor, panoply, rhythmic music and dance, literary language, and specially enhanced and demarcated physical space, and there is no ceremony—just a group of ordinary people standing or milling around and interacting in an ordinary way.  Using such devices as formalization, repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, and manipulation of expectation, the arts attract and focus attention, sustain interest, and arouse and shape feelings.  Thus it should not be forgotten that we are also the only species that can “maintain and transmit from one generation to another the emotional dispositions on which society depends for its existence.” These are the words of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, another “functionalist” cultural anthropologist whose ideas, like Durkheim’s, are intellectually unfashionable today. (Kudos to Wilson for mentioning Durkheim favorably).

Meaning-bearing messages in religious rituals are not simply handed down like objects inherited from one’s forebears or like information transferred—downloaded—from one generation to the next. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that ceremonies work by producing changes in and structuring feelings, and it is through the arts that feelings are evoked that give force and meaning to the beliefs and other “messages.” (Some religious doctrines are only implied or obscure). This is how religions “cause people to cooperate.” Emotions aroused by the arts are the neurobiological proximate mechanisms that make religious and other cultural retention and transmission possible. It is now recognized that moving together in time with others promotes the release of endogenous opioids (including oxytocin) that create feelings of trust, confidence, and unity. Oxytocin additionally reduces cortisol, thereby relieving feelings of stress and anxiety. Such effects are frequently noted as results of “religious belief and practice.” However, religious practice is essentially practice of the arts, which make beliefs and dogma vividly and indelibly memorable. The arts are not casual and trivial excrescences tacked on here and there; on the contrary, they work together to reinforce the emotional magnitude of the beliefs.

Studies of the “human cultural acquisition system,” then, need to include recognition of the fundamental significance of the arts. They are not only cultural acquisitions themselves, but once acquired are often necessary to the transmission of the rest of culture. Symbols are of course diagnostic of our species, but a symbol (whether visual or spoken) is much more powerful when “artified” than when unadorned.  Teamwork is more effective when reinforced by the arts (as insignia, uniform dress, enhanced private vocabulary, and other noteworthy indications of group unity).

The Axial Age brought new human institutions, no longer egalitarian as in tribal societies, but the arts continued to transmit and reinforce priestly and state power and eventually, today, to support our culture’s primary secular interests and values—commerce and entertainment.

If the humanities are now acceptable within the wide purview of evolutionary understanding, the arts remain its last unacknowledged topographical feature.


image credit: Vikramjit Kakati (CC BY-SA 4.0) [post_title] => Where are the arts in the One Culture? [post_excerpt] => If the humanities are now acceptable within the wide purview of evolutionary understanding, the arts remain its last unacknowledged topographical feature. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => where-are-the-arts-in-the-one-culture [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-16 09:50:01 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-16 13:50:01 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=commentary&p=120005275 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => commentary [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005268 [post_author] => 23 [post_date] => 2016-08-15 03:05:08 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-15 07:05:08 [post_content] =>
Image: Quinlan Pfiffer, via Flickr.

Forty years ago, the notion that cultural change can be understood as a system of inheritance caught the popular imagination. The concept of “memes” as cultural units analogous to genes was popularized in the writings of Richard Dawkins—creating a great deal of controversy similar to what arose around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in the same year as Dawkin’s influential work on this subject. Richard Dawkins really stirred things up with his best-selling book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. He did this in two ways: (1) with his story about genetic “selfishness” that gave license to those who wanted to be literal about it and say evolution is all about self-interest, greed, and otherwise selfish behavior; and (2) by introducing the concept of “memes” as cultural units of heredity that play a functional role similar to genes in biological reproduction for the transmission of cultural information. There were two main problems with interpretations of selfish genes—one having to do with an over-emphasis on genes as the only hereditary unit worthy of consideration (often called gene-centrism as it was a narrowing of biology to a myopic treatment of all biological traits being reducible to the traits of individual or groups of genes). The other being a misinterpretation of selfishness as an anthropomorphizing of genes as literally being miniature selfish people. This  gave the rugged individualists of the world free reign to claim that science was on their side when they formulated economic and political philosophies to serve themselves and their peers. Luckily, a great deal of progress has been made on the selfish gene front. We now know that reductionisms of all kinds are inadequate for dealing with the real-world complexities of biology in the flesh. There is not one, but at least four, hereditary systems recognized by biologists today. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb lay this out clearly in their 2006 book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, as they walk through the research literature on genetics, epigenetics, behavioral repertoires, and symbolic culture as four distinct pathways where traits are “heritable” in appropriately defined fashion. Similar progress has been made with the study of altruism and “prosocial” behaviors. It is now widely known that rational self-interest in economics is too narrow a view to encapsulate the richness of real human nature. Books like David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? And E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth are but a sampling among a great diversity of works showing how much the research community has advanced its understandings of social behavior in the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the controversies around cultural memes have not been as productive. Read the cultural evolution literature today and you will find three largely distinct camps:
  1. Those who dismiss meme theory as wrong-headed and disproven.
  2. Those who embrace meme theory as richly productive and vindicated by evidence across many fields.
  3. Those who don’t have strong opinions one way or the other and are waiting to see how the chips fall.
I personally sit in the second camp, having used meme theory to guide my research on the spread of ideas and behaviors across social systems in both digital (social media) and physical environments. What I find interesting about the Camp 1 people—those who dismiss meme theory outright—is that their reasons seem to be based on the fallacies associated with Dawkins’ first major controversy and have little to do with the progress made in memetics research in the forty years since the term was introduced into the intellectual discourse. A summary of the main argument against meme theory is this: There is a great deal of evidence showing that human minds do not replicate information perfectly (or even with high fidelity). Thus it is impossible to conceive of a meme that begins in one mind and somehow is replicated in the mind of another with enough informational integrity to be called a hereditary unit.  In other words, the complex process of communication is reduced (that pesky reductionism again) to “thought units” with defined features that must be recreated without noise or error in two or more minds. Students of cognitive linguistics will recognize a particular metaphor here—the Conduit Metaphor for communication that has been richly explored by scholars like Michael J. Reddy and George Lakoff. In this metaphor, a thought is treated as an “object” that passes through some kind of conduit between one mind and another. It is among the most common conceptual representations for teaching and learning (even though it is empirically incorrect). Linguistic examples include phrases like “Are you getting what I’m saying?” and “The instructor passes on knowledge to students.” Here’s what I find interesting about this argument… it presumes that a number of advances were never made since the year 1976! Specifically, I am thinking of three areas where significant progress has been made during the last forty years: the birth of complexity science in the early 1980’s, developments in the study of human conceptualization and cognitive linguistics since the mid-70’s, and the explosion of digital media in the age of personal computers and later via the internet.  Let us look at each of these in turn. Birth of Complexity Science Scientific reductionism has declined throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century with the rise of systems thinking across many different fields.  Systems thinking arose with cybernetics, information theory, and early computing that made possible the rapid advances in fields like ecology (with ecosystem modeling of population dynamics), meteorology (with numerical weather forecasting for studying emergent patterns in the atmospere), and economics (with systems modeling of ecological throughputs like the famous Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome). In the early 1980’s an interdisciplinary research center called the Santa Fe Institute was founded to convene the rag-tag cadre of scholars working across fields like these around what has come to be known as complexity science. The focus of this new science is the emergent patterns and systemic behaviors for phenomena where a large number of interacting parts give rise to often paradoxical and unpredictable behaviors. It is the anti-thesis of reductionism—a research program that has given rise to sweeping advances in theoretical biology, the study of social organization, self-organizing processes, and more. When Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. A language has gradually developed around concepts like self-organized criticality, emergence, pattern formation, and diffusion-limited aggregation to model, simulate, and visualize the interactions within a complex system that give rise to emergent outcomes. Without such a language, it is difficult to conceive of memes as dynamic, emergent patterns of social information arising from many interacting parts. Developments in Human Conceptualization The mid-1970’s were a time of great progress for many fields. Around the time that meme theory was capturing the public imagination there were several researchers giving name to recognizable patterns of human thought and behavior that emerge over and over again. In sociology and linguistics, it was frame semantics that explored the conceptual structure of social settings and thought processes. Social psychologists and anthropologists talked about script theory as a way to make sense of routine behaviors that people “act out” in common social interactions. Computer scientists and information theorists grappled with image schemas as a way to represent modular logical structures in algorithms as they created software for machine learning. What all of these approaches shared in common was an emphasis on distinct conceptual structures that can be discerned and analyzed for their inherent logic, roles and relationships, and heuristic uses by people as they navigated the complexities of real-world social environments. They led to the development of research methodologies that are now routinely used to study political discourse, conduct ethnographic research, engage in branding and marketing exercises, and more. An example of a “recurring thought structure” in politics is the concept of tax relief—which uses the metaphor that a tax is a burden to introduce an inferential logic about fairness, suffering, and relief. This concept is used over and over again in politics. It has been translated into slogans, political speeches, editorial commentaries, and dinner table debates more times than can be counted. Applied to meme theory, this body of tools and techniques demonstrates that researchers across many fields have found value in the perspective that culture can be studied as information patterns that arise in a variety of social settings routinely and with modular elements that are readily discernible in each new instance. The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence for image-schematic structures (like the metaphor for taxes above with its distinctive inferential logic and recognizable use cases). Explosion of Digital Media Add to these developments the explosion of digital media since the advent of personal computers in the 1980’s and ascension of the Internet for public use in the 90’s up to the present. There are now so many technological tools for digital reproduction of content (where replication is done with such high fidelity that it cannot be questioned) that the theory of memes is vindicated on technical grounds alone. Consider the digital storage of 1’s and 0’s to generate an image for our profile picture on Facebook (which is created in an identical manner for each user who views it). Or the spread of “internet memes” where distinct lineages of descent-with-modification have been studied for the spreading patterns of ideas as they hybridize, mutate, and quite literally evolve leaving a data trail that can be analyzed with unprecedented methodological rigor. An example is this study of information diffusion on Facebook. Digital media represents a phase transition in cultural research—sometimes called the Big Data Explosion or the “dataclysm” by social scientists who analyze patterns in the massive datasets now used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, track themes with keyword searches of text on Lexus-Nexus, or deconstruct narrative tropes in the media. The theory of memes is highly valued by researchers who take an epidemiological approach to the spread of information. Some ideas are more “contagious” than others for psychological reasons that are becoming known with greater clarity and insight with each passing year. For example, this study looking at campaign donations as a kind of social contagion. Network scientists are mapping out the spread of ideas and behaviors in real time with tracking algorithms that monitor the World Wide Web. Discourse analysts are characterizing the composition of themes and frame semantic structures that shape how various publics think and feel about important topics. Weaving It All Together Combine these three major domains of progress—complexity science enters the scene, human conceptualization is now studied with great rigor, and so much of human culture has gone digital—and it is clear that meme theory has been highly generative and productive in the study of human culture. It is time to update our debates about cultural transmission to include developments like these. The old debates that reduce all of biological evolution to genes have fallen into disuse. We can now do the same for their analogues in the study of culture.  I am not suggesting that memes are THE way to make sense of social learning and cultural evolution (as there are other very important frameworks like gene-culture coevolution and dual-inheritance theory that provide additional bridges between culture and biology). But we can now recover the baby from the thrown-out bathwater and see how a dynamic systems point-of-view melded with advances in other social sciences is highly productive and generative for shaping the research practices of the future. Looking at meme theory forty years later, we can see that much more is now known and there are things we collectively have figured out how to do that would seem like magic to the 1976 mind of a social scientist. I hope this article stimulates a healthy dialogue and debate so we can move toward the goal of consilience across fields and get away from the narrowing binaries of “true/false” and “right/wrong” in future conversations. It is not that meme theory is right or wrong, but rather that it has been (and will continue to be) highly valuable for cultural research across the social and biological sciences. [post_title] => A Forty Year Update on Meme Theory [post_excerpt] => When Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. Much has changed in the intervening years. 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Model of a female Homo antecessor of Atapuerca practicing cannibalism by Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España via Wikimedia Commons.
  One of my aunts was once asked during an interview for a position in the criminal justice field “Is there any kind of criminal you don’t feel you could work with?” “Yes,” she replied. “Have you ever seen ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’ I don’t do cannibals.” My aunt is an extremely kind woman, who cheerfully works with hardened criminals without batting an eye. Her refusal to work with this class of criminals—along with a long list of lurid horror movies--illustrates how repugnant our society finds cannibalism. We view it as highly deviant and pathological, limited to the worst of people (such as Jeffrey Dahmer). But at the same time, exceptions have been carved out for when this practice is considered appropriate. In cases of starvation, cannibalism for survival purposes is generally accepted as a necessity, such as the final Franklin expedition when sailors had to eat their own shipmates, or in 1972 when members of a Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the mountains of Argentina were forced to eat their dead teammates. Cannibalism has also been tolerated for medical reasons, such as during the 16-18th centuries, when elite Europeans who condemned the practice by ‘uncivilized’ societies engaged in it themselves, consuming Egyptian mummies, fresh human blood, and ground up bones.  Today, some American women eat their own--or other women's-- placentas after childbirth, believing it has healthful or spiritual benefits. And symbolic or literal cannibalism forms an integral part of religious traditions around the world, including Christianity. Speaking to the strength of this taboo,  I would expect people who engage in these exceptions might push back against the idea that they are cannibalistic practices, despite their meeting the definition*.  But, as we will discuss here, cannibalism has been a part of human cultures since long before we became modern H. sapiens. Bioarchaeologists identify cannibalism in the archaeological record by a suite of characteristic modifications to the skeleton, including:
  • Defleshing cutmarks
  • Longitudinal breakage patterns similar to those seen on butchered animals (to extract nutritious bone marrow)
  • Tooth marks from gnawing
  • “Pot polish”: characteristic polishing that is the result of bones coming into contact with a cooking vessel while being boiled
Biochemical analysis can also give insights into the practice of cannibalism. The presence of human myoglobin within human coprolites indicates the consumption of human tissues. And using biochemical analyses, Trujillo-Mederos et al. (2015) were able to determine that the remains of eighteen people killed and eaten in rituals at the Late Preclassic Period site of Tlatelcomila, near present-day Mexico City, were cooked in a variety of ways (including boiling and grilling) and eaten with chilies. Anthropologists generally distinguish between two types of cannibalism: “endocannibalism,” in which the consumed individuals are from the same group as those who eat them, and “exocannibalism” in which people outside the group are consumed. The former has been interpreted as being motivated by a variety of factors, including spirituality, honor, bereavement, and social control. The latter is more often interpreted as an act of violence or contempt. (Carbonell et al. 2010). As in contemporary groups, this practice in past groups was motivated by a variety of reasons including starvation, warfare, and ritual.  It can be difficult to distinguish between the latter two motivations from skeletal remains unless there is clear archaeological context (Larsen 2015). For example, the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian assemblage at Gough’s Cave site shows extensive modifications to the bones including gnawing and cutting, but also the fashioning of skull-cups from the crania, suggesting “that cannibalism was probably not survival cannibalism but a customary one that included ritual practices involving the shaping of human skulls into skull-cups.” (Bello et al. 2015). However Mays and Beattie (2015) note that starvation-motivated cannibalism in the archaeological record can be identified by patterned modification to skeletal elements:
Survival (or starvation) cannibalism generally follows a sequence in which body parts requiring least effort in processing are utilised first. Initially, flesh is cut from an articulated corpse, and large muscle groups are often targeted. If further calories are needed, there may be corpse dismemberment and, finally, processing of bones to extract fat from medullary cavities and cancellous bone (Read, 1974; Turner & Turner 1999; Rautman & Fenton, 2005). If cold conditions favour preservation of the corpse, this may potentially allow sustenance to be obtained over a prolonged period (Read, 1974; Rautman & Fenton, 2005).
  Bioarchaeologists have identified cannibalistic practices in many ancient societies—so many, in fact, that a comprehensive overview is way beyond the scope of this blog post. But what particularly interests me is just how ancient it is: symbolic cannibalism is seen (as mentioned above) at the Upper Paleolithic Gough’s Cave site in England, and cannibalism was also not at all uncommon among archaic humans. The oldest evidence for cannibalism comes from the ~1 million year old H. antecessor remains at the Gran Dolina site at Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain.  Neandertal remains from Krapina in Croatia (~130,000 YBP), Moula-Guercy cave and Les Pradelles in France, Zafarraya and El Sidrion in Northern Spain, and the early modern H. sapiens from the Herto site in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia (~160,000 YBP) also all show bone modifications consistent with butchering.  And a recent paper by Rougier et al. (2016) adds additional evidence that Neandertal cannibalism was widespread. Neandertal remains reanalyzed from the Troisième caverne from Goyet (Belgium), which date to 40,500-45,500 cal YBP, show evidence of butchering for both food and the creation of bone retouchers (used to modify stone tools) . It is unknown whether the use of Neandertal remains for retouchers was a symbolic act, or simply expediency**. So although we may shudder at the thought of eating people, the archaeological record shows us that cannibalism has actually been an integral part of human evolutionary history. Exactly how it may have shaped our evolution is unclear. Certainly it has allowed individuals to survive under extreme circumstances; could it have preserved populations that would have otherwise gone extinct? It’s tempting to speculate that this might have been a crucial survival strategy in the case of H. antecessor, but additional evidence is needed. Oh, and my aunt? She got the job, and has been working to improve the lives of incarcerated people since. She hasn't had to work with any cannibals.     *As a cradle Catholic, I've often engaged in one such practice, but without an anthropological perspective I would never have characterized the Eucharist as a cannibalistic act, despite that being the literal meaning behind the doctrine of transubstantiation! **as a side note, mitochondrial DNA recovered from remains at Troisième caverne show them to be genetically similar to other Neandertals from Feldhofer (Germany), Vindya (Croatia), and El Sidrón (Spain). This finding of similarity over wide geographic distances supports one current hypothesis that Neandertals had an extremely low effective population size.   References and further reading Bello SM, Saladié P, Cáceres I, Rodríguez-Hidalgo A, Parfitt SA. 2015. Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe. Journal of Human Evolution 82: 170-189. Carbonell E, Cáceres I, Lozano M, Saladié P, Rosell J, Lorenzo C, Vallverdú J, Huguet R, Canals A, and de Castro JMB. (2010). Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene. Current Anthropology 51 (4): 539-549 Larsen CS. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton, 2nd edition. Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology, Cambridge University Press. Larsen CS 2014 Our Origins: Discovering Physical Anthropology, third edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. Mays S, Beattie O. 2015. Evidence for End-stage Cannibalism on Sir John Franklin’s Last Expedition to the Arctic, 1845. International Journal o fOsteoarchaeology doi: 10.1002/oa.2479. Rougier H, Crevecoeur I, Beauval C, Posh C, Flas D, Wißing C, Furtwängler A, Germonpré M, Gómez-Olivencia A, Semal P, van der Plicht J, Bocherens H, Krause J. 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Sci Rep 6:29005 doi: 10.1038/srep29005 Trujillo-Mederos A, Bosch P, Pijoan C, Mansilla J. 2015. Savory recipes and the color of the Tlatelcomila human bones. Archaeometry 58(4): 688-704. DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12178 [post_title] => Cannibalism and Human Evolution [post_excerpt] => Cannibalism is one of the oldest of human taboos. However, a recent study in Nature provides evidence that Neandertal cannibalism was widespread. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => cannibalism-and-human-evolution [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-09 15:01:41 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-09 19:01:41 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005197 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 7 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005436 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2016-09-19 08:46:47 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-09-19 12:46:47 [post_content] => After decades of debate on the seemingly irreconcilable differences between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of the sciences and humanities, David Sloan Wilson suggests that we are now seeing real signs of the barriers being broken down. In their place, we are seeing the emergence of a united, “One Culture”, in which any and all disciplines can be united around a common framework of understanding. Not least, the study of evolutionary heritage and change—in both its biological and cultural manifestations—has huge importance and implications for our understanding and theorizing about human thought, behavior, and our interactions with each other and our environment. I am greatly honored that David highlighted my book laying out an evolutionary theory of the origins of religion (often considered a no-go area for science) as one of the four examples of such a merging of disciplinary approaches. Reading the commentaries on David’s essay so far, there are clearly more battles to be fought. However, rather than entering the fray directly, here I want to draw our attention to another front opening up on the horizon—a different set of battles that, to win, the Two Cultures will have to bury the hatchet and face together. In doing so, I think we will be forced to leave the Two Cultures behind, as well as discovering that the One Culture is the way ahead. Last week, I attended one the most interesting meetings of the year. It was the “Cecil Summit”, an emergency meeting in Oxford bringing together biologists, conservationists, economists, political scientists, and social entrepreneurs to knock their heads together to work out how to solve an urgent problem: saving the African lion from extinction. “Save”, you might wonder? It is not well known that, in comparison to widely publicized campaigns to conserve rhinos and elephants, for example, there are even fewer African lions remaining than these other iconic species. They have declined at an alarming rate across most of their range, now down to a mere 10% or so of its historical distribution, and precariously fragmented across the parks and dwindling habitat of several different countries.[1] The conference was hosted by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)[2], and its high-energy director David Macdonald. “Cecil” was the name of one of WildCRU’s GPS-collared study animals whose death last year, at the hands of a Minnesotan dentist armed with a bow and arrow, was widely reported around the world. WildCRU’s and Oxford’s websites experienced the highest volume of traffic in the university’s history. In the wake of this public outcry about the untimely death of a majestic lion, the conference was designed to ask how we could take this “Cecil moment” of widespread public interest into a “Cecil movement”—a sustained commitment to reverse the decline of the African lion and preserve its heritage for the future. Now what of the One Culture debate? The problem of the Cecil Summit was, quite clearly, not a problem of biology. It is a problem of people, and the interaction of people and their environment. The lion biologists present rattled off an impressive synopsis of lion studies that have been conducted across Africa for many decades. They know all about lions, track many of their daily movements from satellites, and know in great detail a range of methods to conserve them. The difficult part is implementing these methods of saving the lion from extinction in the face of a burgeoning and rapidly developing human population that needs space to expand and land to grow food. The burning question put to the conference was thus how to preserve what is, for those communities who live alongside them, a dangerous predator and livestock rustler in a continent with the highest levels of poverty and a population set to double from 1 to 2 billion in the next 50 years. As became strikingly clear, this is simply not a question that scientists are able to tackle on their own. Without the input of representatives of the other, non-science culture, they will fail. Like many of the significant challenges we face in the 21st century—biodiversity loss, climate change, energy, poverty, managing food and water resources—science is “only” the background info we need in order to make informed decisions. The tricky part comes next: getting from scientific ideas to policy that politicians can sell and people will accept. I suggest that the many global challenges that we are being forced to tackle, by merging science and policy, will in themselves help to break down the barriers between the Two Cultures. Indeed, they must if they are to succeed. This suggests a different take on the One Culture debate. The reconciliation of hardened ideologies about the relative values of science and arts may not happen within the academy. Indeed, academics have many reasons to resist it, especially as science departments inexorably expand while many social science and humanities departments are suffering severe decline. There is tangible real estate that must be defended if it is to survive. Rather, I see the One Culture forming somewhere else—at the coalface of real world challenges where disciplinary defenses have long been cast aside in the service of solving practical problems. The One Culture also has another significant source of vitality: a new generation of soldiers. The global challenges outlined above are not in fact going to be solved by us—the ageing academic cadre who grew up with the sociobiology and post-structuralist debates of the 70s, 80s, and after. Instead, these challenges are going to be solved by the students coming up through the system now, students who as far as I can tell are far less resistant to interdisciplinary thinking than their forebears have been before them. For them, the world is a dynamic and interconnected place, where disciplinary approaches and tools of analysis are much more visibly merging and intersecting. This should be no surprise with the internet, social media, globalization, and the increasing sophistication of analytical methods across all disciplines. While the next generation still understand and appreciate fundamental differences in philosophical backgrounds and methodological approaches between the arts and sciences, to me they seem far more interested in taking the good bits of both worlds and using them to be creative in the pursuit of new challenges. I may be biased (or lucky) with the students I know. But the ones I have here in Oxford are often way more interdisciplinary than me, in their thinking, their educational backgrounds, and their aspirations. Several of them have moved across departments, and across faculties, within and across universities. If we in the older generation have been testing the boundaries of the Two Cultures in recent years, these youngsters often seem to stampede across them with reckless abandon. I’m not sure they would even recognize the Two Cultures problem as we do. While David rightly calls us to rethink and celebrate signs of the One Culture emerging out of the Two, I wonder if we may be merely charting the tail end of an old debate—a debate that happened to be particularly important to our generation, but one that is on a path to extinction. It will no doubt remain a subject of academic interest for some time to come (and thus by definition, not of particular interest to the average global citizen), but I suggest it will partly become superseded by events and urgent demands of the day. If we are to tackle such complex problems such as climate change, poverty, terrorism, and war, then we will not only need to involve “both” cultures, but to renounce them. The One Culture is not merely a vision of how academia could or should join forces to produce a more unified framework for understanding the world and our place in it. Rather, my argument is that creating One Culture is going to become an absolute necessity if we are to address and solve the many lethal challenges to the planet and its inhabitants in the future. As populations expand and resources dwindle, every major problem is accumulating a significant and complex human dimension. Workable solutions require strategies that take into account history, religion, psychology, politics, culture, identity, the arts, and numerous other human concerns as much as science. The scientists cannot deal with these multifaceted problems alone, but will need help from people from both of the Two Cultures tribes. Of course, interdisciplinary teams have long been important in addressing big problems, from public health and international development to urban planning and space exploration. But the scale and urgency of such complex problems, especially at the global level, is making interdisciplinarity a more common and much more pressing need. David highlighted the utility and value of stepping outside disciplinary boundaries. I strongly endorse this and, in this article, merely tried to identify two new sources driving the change: global challenges that demand a One Culture approach, and a next generation of scholars and practitioners that bear all the hallmarks of belonging to One Culture already. Having lauded this change, I should caution that the Two Cultures “problem” is still very much an obstacle to achieving it. Because of the severe demands on young academics to publish, find jobs, and gain tenure, there are many reasons to retrench into one of the two cultures and play it safe. One Culture may be “good for the group” (humanity), but there can be costs to individual self-interest in waving the flag too high (interdisciplinary scholars falling between the disciplinary cracks). Although I have enjoyed and benefitted immensely from traversing disciplinary boundaries, I have increasingly observed a variety of back-room resistance and sometimes hostility to those trying to do so. In hindsight, it was an extremely risky strategy that paid off for me, but which I generally encourage my own students to avoid. It is so much easier and safer to be a straight-down-the-line academic with a single home discipline and department, and to teach, stack up publications, and develop expertise in a specific area. Fortunately for the One Culture, most of my students have diligently ignored this advice, spurred on as they are by the practical utility of joining one big, powerful tribe. Only a big, powerful tribe can save the lion, just one of the many global challenges to come. References [1] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/48/14894.abstract [2] https://www.wildcru.org   -- Image via Flickr/daughter3986851963 [post_title] => Divided We Fall: The One Culture, the Next Generation, and 21st Century Challenges [post_excerpt] => Dominic Johnson suggests that the many global challenges that we are being forced to tackle, by merging science and policy, will in themselves help to break down the barriers between the Two Cultures. 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