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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] => 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 ) [2] => 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 ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005219 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2016-08-08 14:51:31 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-08 18:51:31 [post_content] => Like David, I have long campaigned for closing the divide between the humanities and the sciences. And like David, I think that evolutionary biology should be the main bridge between them. To my eye, though, the gap between the sciences and the humanities is deeper and wider than it appears in David’s account. I agree that humanists and evolutionists both will need to adjust their world views, but the evolutionists need only refine and expand on ideas that are already, in principle, congenial to them. The humanists will need to alter fundamental features in the whole conceptual structure in which they operate. It is not a task they are evidently willing to undertake. Many are not merely ignorant of the grand vista opened up by a biologically grounded understanding of literature, the arts, and culture. They are actively hostile to evolutionary study in the humanities, and determined to resist. (For salient instances of that resistance, see Richardson 2004; Menand 2005; Dawson 2006; Goodheart 2007; Peterson 2008; Deresiewicz 2009; Levine 2009;  Kramnick 2011; Fletcher 2014.) David draws an analogy between Darwin’s relation to the naturalists of his day and the One Culture’s relation to humanist scholars in our own time. The naturalists were collectors and describers, David argues, and Darwin provided an explanatory structure identifying causal linkages among the objects of their study—beetles, bones, and birds, fungi, fireflies, and foxes. Humanists, like the naturalists, David suggests, have been busily engaged in theory-free description of local cultural objects: religions, literary texts, musical traditions, artistic forms. What David says about the naturalists is more or less correct. The parallel breaks down, though, with the humanists. Before the poststructuralist revolution of the eighties—often designated “the Theory Revolution”—many humanists were collectors and describers, but they also participated, however unconsciously, in the innate dualism that Paul Bloom and others have identified as a species-typical characteristic of the human mind. Those old humanists regarded the physical world as, well, physical, and the proper province of scientific study. Literature, religion, the arts and often history, in contrast, they regarded as spiritual, or at least as cultural; they believed, intuitively but nonetheless passionately, that the subjects of the humanities are made of some mentalistic stuff different from the stuff of the physical world—ontologically, metaphysically, and epistemologically different, qualitatively and irreducibly different. Northrop Frye was the most important systematizing literary theorist of the humanist period in the middle of the previous century. Frye said that what literary theory needed was a grand organizing theoretical idea parallel to the idea Darwin provided for evolutionary biology, and in The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye set out to provide that idea—parallel to evolution, but only parallel; two parallel lines that intersected only in the ultimate spiritual reality, a curious realm in which the sum of all literary words constituted the mind of God, and in which the spiritual forces underlying the physical world subsumed and subordinated all merely physical causes like those identified in Darwin’s theory. The old-fashioned humanists were not naturalists. They were dualists, and if pushed hard toward monism, they flipped into the dominance of the mind, or spirit, or culture, over matter. That is for instance the opinion of Robert Scholes, a former president of the Modern Language Association of America (the umbrella organization for academic literary scholars). “Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural . . . but so what? We are cultural now, and culture is the domain of the humanities” (2006).  (Joe Henrich, by the way, sometimes sounds as if he is singing Scholes’s song about how we are cultural now. At other times, he sings the song of gene-culture coevolution, a very different tune, set to a different beat.) That’s for the old humanists. The Theory People, the people who have dominated the humanities for the past forty years (and have occupied much of the territory of anthropology, also), can even less plausibly be likened to the naturalists of Darwin’s day. The Theory People have theories, lots of them: Derridean deconstruction, Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist sociology, feminist gender theory, most prominently, and they also have One Theory to Rule Them All: Foucauldian Cultural Critique. David just touches on the issue of irrationalist relativism in the humanities. Derridean deconstruction is overtly and flamboyantly irrationalist, and it remains at the foundation of the anti-foundationalist and anti-science rhetoric that is now part of the semi-official creed of the humanities. David seems to suggest that there are no actual, real differences between the sciences and the humanities, only ignorance and misunderstanding, failures of communication, unnecessary mistrust. I think differently. The humanities now cling passionately to a set of ideas that are incompatible with evolutionary thinking, ideas that cannot just be tweaked or supplemented to bring them in line with gene-culture coevolution or biocultural critique, ideas that are fundamentally irreconcilable with any claim to the causal primacy of evolutionary processes in the development of human motives, emotions, and forms of cognition. Do humans have a nature, a species-typical set of characteristics that are innate, universal, that have evolved in an adaptive relationship to the environment, and that form an underlying unity for all diversity in culture and individual behavior? Are male and female gender identities in humans fundamentally constrained by genetically encoded behavioral dispositions mediated by anatomy, hormones, and physiology? Is the human life cycle, with its phases and functions, regulated by a species-wide set of genetically encoded features derived ultimately from inclusive fitness? Go to an MLA convention, with its thousands of members milling about in fine tweed among multiple convention hotels, occupy a plenary podium, and ask for a voice vote of the assembled body on questions such as these. What kind of answer do you think you will get? I’ve been there, and asked such questions. For me, the only question about the answer is whether it will be voiced in dogmatic formulas of negation, or instead, will voice itself in inarticulate howls of rage and horror. No, David, evolutionary biology is not only about the study of biological diversity. It is also about the evolutionary processes underlying all life forms. In the conclusion to the Origin of Species, Darwin makes the obvious point: “all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.” And no, consilience or the One Culture is not concerned solely with cultural diversity. It is concerned also with the universal aspects of human experience, with what Don Brown calls “the universal people.” There is indeed a Grand Narrative, a true narrative, an evolutionary narrative. We have not yet completed it. Many evolutionary human scientists cordon off all of imaginative culture—religion, ideology, the arts—as something separate from basic human nature. That’s a mistake, but it is a correctable mistake. Go to a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, occupy a plenary podium, and ask for a voice vote: how many of you believe that manifest human behavior is purely a product of genes, with no causal component from culture? I think you’d hear not a single timorous voice raised in support of that proposition. That’s what I mean by the greater adjustment necessary from the side of the humanities. In theory, at least, evolutionists are virtually all bioculturalists. In both theory and practice, the overwhelming majority of humanists at the present time are pure cultural constructivists. They probably will never change their minds. But eventually they will die. If a few graduate programs open up allowing students to be educated in biocultural thinking, eventually, the appeal of true knowledge, the actual scientific Grand Narrative, will come to dominate the humanities. It will probably take a long time. My own view is that the time will not be shortened by transparent efforts at papering over the reality of the irreconcilable antagonism between biocultural theory and pure cultural constructivism. Meanwhile, what is to be done? Biocultural theorists have plenty of good work to do. Gene-culture coevolution, after languishing for two decades from its inception with Lumsden and Wilson in the early eighties, is now rapidly gaining power and momentum. Scholars and scientists like Peter Turchin, Greg Cochran, Henry Harpending, Gregory Clark, Francis Fukuyama, and Nicholas Wade have begun to make real inroads into post-agricultural political and social history. Despite adverse institutional conditions, evolutionary humanists have published a few dozen books and something like 300 articles and book chapters. Some scholars are actively working to create consilience, with interdisciplinary conferences and edited volumes, and indeed, with This View of Life.  Then, too, there is the new journal, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture. The new journal could and should be a means of establishing a body of common knowledge and a standard for what counts as informed commentary on imaginative culture. It can provide a habitation and a name for a subject area that most people don't quite realize is there. Imaginative culture, as conceived in this journal, includes religion, ideology, music, painting dance, literature, film, graphic arts, and popular culture. Most people don't tend to think of all those areas as part of one big area. The journal will provide a gathering ground for evolutionary research in all these fields; it will be a place to go for interdisciplinary evolutionary scholars who need to be informed about all the work done in specialist fields adjacent to their own. And it will carry the implicit message that imaginative culture does exist. Simply establishing that it exists ought to make it more obviously a legitimate subject of inquiry from within the empirical sciences as well as the humanities. The journal can’t provide graduate programs or academic jobs for those younger scholars brave and resolute enough to venture out into the abyss that opens up between the fortified bastions of the two cultures. But it will at least provide a venue for publication. I sometimes look into the abyss, staring into its depths, and feel grim. But then, I remember, the Berlin Wall, which fell so suddenly and unexpectedly. There’s hope. In any case, at whatever speed institutional change might occur, those of us lucky enough to have jobs are also lucky in our historical moment. We have a true paradigm in which to work, a legitimate research program, an achieved body of knowledge on which to build, a sense of mission, a community of collective effort, and rich discoveries awaiting us. References Dawson, G. (2006). Literature and science under the microscope. Journal of Victorian Culture, 11(2), 301-315. doi:10.3366/jvc.2006.11.2.301 Deresiewicz, W. (2009, June 8). Adaptation: On literary Darwinism. Nation, 26-31. Fletcher, A. (2014). Another literary Darwinism. Critical Inquiry, 40(2), 450-469. doi:10.1086/674126 Goodheart, E. (2007). Darwinian misadventures in the humanities. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Kramnick, J. (2011). Against literary Darwinism. Critical Inquiry, 37(2), 315-347. Levine, G. L. (2009). Reflections on Darwin and Darwinizing. Victorian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Social, Political, and Cultural Studies, 51(2), 223-245. Menand, L. (2005). Dangers within and without. In R. G. Feal (Ed.), Profession 2005 (pp. 10-17). New York: Modern Language Association of America. Peterson, B. (2008, August 1). Darwin to the rescue. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54, B7-B9. Richardson, A. (2004). Studies in literature and cognition: A field map. In E. Spolsky & R. C. Richardson (Eds.), The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity (pp. 1-29). Burlington, VT: Ashgate. Scholes, R. (2006). Reply. PMLA, 121(1), 297-298. Read Joseph Carrol's recent interview with David Sloan Wilson, which includes details on his new book "Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and the Sciences". [post_title] => The Gap between the Humanities and the Sciences [post_excerpt] => I agree that humanists and evolutionists both will need to adjust their world views, but the evolutionists need only refine and expand on ideas that are already, in principle, congenial to them. The humanists will need to alter fundamental features in the whole conceptual structure in which they operate. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-gap-between-the-humanities-and-the-sciences [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-16 09:52:17 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-16 13:52:17 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=commentary&p=120005219 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => commentary [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005205 [post_author] => 30 [post_date] => 2016-08-04 18:01:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-04 22:01:38 [post_content] =>

We live in an age of information overload. Humanity now creates more information in a year than it did in a millennium — most of which does not get translated into knowledge. A mere trickle manages to become wisdom acted upon by society.

This is a serious problem. And it has a solution:

New scientific fields need to be branded and marketed so that the knowledge they embody can be learned and put to use where needed. Simply sitting behind the curtain in an ivory tower won’t cut it in today’s media deluge of (mis)information.

I say this as a practitioner who currently has the task of branding a new field of science. My collaborators and I are in the middle of a process to birth the field of cultural evolution by forming a scientific society that coordinates research, builds community, and informs the synthesis of knowledge that makes up this vibrant, multi-disciplinary field.

We have a rare advantage in that most people have never heard of cultural evolution. They don’t know it exists. People working on social change all over the world have no idea that a scientific body of knowledge is perfectly situated to transform their practices — away from poking around in the darkness and into a mode of rigorous design science for guided evolution of social norms, ideas and stories, technologies, institutions, and practices.

But first, the story needs to be told. It must have iconic images associated with it. Just like the Coca-Colas and Harley Davidsons of the world, the field of cultural evolution needs to be carefully constructed around belief systems and identities, emotional sensibilities and artifacts. In a word, it needs to be branded.

What does it mean to brand something? According to marketing expert David Airey, the definition of an iconic brand is this:

It should offer the “go to” product or service within its market, delivering what people think of first when they want what the brand sells. So if I’m looking for something online, I think of Google. If I want a quick sandwich made with care, I think of Subway. If I want to furnish a house without spending a fortune, then there’s IKEA.

So what do people currently think of when trying to create social change? Where do they go to learn about it? Many apply to MBA programs or perhaps get a degree in public administration. Or they go into psychology because this is a field that studies human behavior. Maybe — if they are especially savvy and outside the mainstream — they enter a history program specializing in social justice or social movements, or get their degree in public health where they sift through case studies of large-scale prevention programs designed to improve health outcomes.

What they don’t do is think of just one iconic place that is the “go to” for social change. And in today’s world of converging global threats (think climate change) and dysfunctional institutions (how corrupt the political process has become), there are a LOT of people wanting to work in the arenas of positive social change.

It is easy to think of iconic brands in the business world. Simply grab your iPhone or hit up that running shoe store. But what about intellectual domains? People need to know where to go so they can learn things they need to know.

There was a TED Talk fad a few years ago — when people thought this was the place to learn about “ideas worth spreading”. But in the long run this learning environment proved inadequate for creating systemic and structural change (which is desperately needed now and in the future).

Watching an 18 minute talk can be inspiring and informative, but it doesn’t produce the results young people are looking for in our broken world today.

Which is why I feel so strongly about branding cultural evolution successfully. People need to know that a proper integrative science is coming into existence at the very juncture in history when it is needed most. Humanity is going through the most turbulent period of global change our species has ever known — and we are flying blind while doing it because we don’t have the conceptual tools to make sense of it collectively. At least not yet.

So imagine five years from now that there has been a successful marketing effort to spread the gospel of cultural evolution.

  • When a terrorist bombing strikes some public space in the world, people automatically think about the research on identify fusion in tribal rituals that give rise to loyalty bonds. Or maybe they think about the various ways that wealth inequality and economic desperation provide breeding grounds for pathways to radicalization.
  • When a political contest is clearly shown to be corrupt, people think in terms of incentive structures that “select for” deception, lying, polarization, and turning off the majority of voters to preserve status quo systems of power.
  • When a new technology appears on the scene, people recognize how it arose through iterations in the past as part of the “adjacent possible” for any evolutionary search algorithm that is exploring the possibilities for matching previous technologies to new problems.

Insights such as these should be common sense. They aren’t because few are learning about the science of cultural evolution. Similar things can be said about advances in the social sciences writ large — or in other arenas likecollaborative finance, organizing practices for social movements, materials research for breakthrough engineering designs, and much more.

The richness of new knowledge is mostly being neglected and overlooked in our information-excessive media landscape. It is time to start promoting stories about what is known to supplant the promotion of stories designed to obfuscate and confuse.

Let us begin to apply what we know about how to spread ideas to the process through which new ideas are created. From this day forth, every new science will need to be branded and marketed if it is to provide value to its constituents — and to society overall.

[post_title] => Why New Scientific Fields Need Branding [post_excerpt] => New scientific fields need to be branded and marketed so that the knowledge they embody can be learned and put to use where needed. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => why-new-scientific-fields-need-branding [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-04 18:01:38 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-04 22:01:38 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005205 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005182 [post_author] => 42 [post_date] => 2016-08-02 16:09:35 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-02 20:09:35 [post_content] => The dynamic of science and politics that was at the heart of an argument between Thomas Jefferson and Count Buffon in the second half of the 18th century is eerily similar to the climate change “debate” occurring today. A dangerously wrong idea takes hold not because followers understand it, but because it taps into what they desperately want – need? – to believe. Or at least that is the argument I want to make by outlining what happened when two of the more brilliant men of their time faced off more than two hundred years ago. Here’s how I summarize the bare bones of the story in the Prologue to my book Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. "…It was one thing for the Europeans, particularly the French, to refer to Americans as upstarts, malcontents, and threats to the monarchy — in a sense many of them were all that. It was another matter entirely to suggest that all life forms in America were degenerate compared to those of the Old World. Yet that is precisely what Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, one of France’s most distinguished Enlightenment thinkers, and one of the best-known names in Europe at the time, claimed. In his massive encyclopedia of natural history, Histoire Naturelle, Buffon laid out what came to be called the theory of degeneracy. He argued that, as a result of living in a cold and wet climate, all species found in America were weak and feeble. What’s more, any species imported into America for economic reasons would soon succumb to its new environment and produce lines of puny, feeble offspring. America, Buffon told his readers, is a land of swamps, where life putrefies and rots. And all of this from the pen of the preeminent natural historian of his century. There was no escaping the pernicious effects of the American environment—not even for Native Americans. They too were degenerate ….The environment and natural history had never before been used to make such sweeping claims, essentially damning an entire continent in the name of science. Buffon’s American degeneracy hypothesis was quickly adopted and expanded by men such as the Abbé Raynal and the Abbé de Pauw, who believed that Buffon’s theory did not go far enough. They went on to claim that the theory of degeneracy applied equally well to transplanted Europeans and their descendants in America…. Thomas Jefferson understood the seriousness of Buffon’s accusations, and he would have none of it. He was convinced that the data Buffon and his supporters relied upon was flawed… And Jefferson quickly realized the long-term consequences, should the theory of degeneracy take hold. Why would Europeans trade with America, or immigrate to the New World, if Buffon and his followers were correct? Indeed, some very powerful people were already employing the degeneracy argument to stop immigration to America. … Jefferson led a full-scale assault against Buffon’s theory of degeneracy to insure that these things wouldn’t happen. He devoted the largest section of the only book he ever wrote — Notes on the State of Virginia — to systematically debunking Buffon’s degeneracy theory, taking special pride in defending American Indians from such pernicious claims. The author of the Declaration of Independence employed more than his rhetorical skills in Notes. Jefferson produced table after table of data that he had compiled, supporting his contentions. As minister to France, Jefferson knew Buffon, and even dined with him on occasion. He was confident that the Count was a reasonable, enlightened man, who would retract his degeneracy theory if he were presented with overwhelming evidence against it. Notes on the State of Virginia was just one weapon in Jefferson’s arsenal. Jefferson also wanted to present Buffon with tangible evidence—something the Count could touch. He tried with the skin of a panther, and then the bones of a hulking mastodon that had roamed America in the distant past, but Buffon didn’t budge. Jefferson’s most concerted effort in terms of hands-on evidence was to procure a very large, dead, stuffed American moose — antlers and all — to hand Buffon personally, in effect saying “see.” This moose became a symbol for Jefferson — a symbol of the quashing of European arrogance in the form of degeneracy. Jefferson went to extraordinary lengths to obtain this giant moose. Both while he was being chased from Monticello by the British in the early 1780s, and then later while he was in France drumming up support and money for the revolutionary cause in the mid-to-late 1780s, Jefferson spent an inordinate amount of time imploring his friends to send him a stuffed, very large moose. In the midst of correspondences with James Monroe, George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin over urgent matters of state, Jefferson found the time to repeatedly write his colleagues — particularly those who liked to hunt — all but begging them to send him a moose that he could use to counter Buffon’s ideas on degeneracy. … Eventually… the seven-foot-tall stuffed moose made it to Jefferson, and then to Buffon. Yet, despite Jefferson’s passionate refutation, the theory of degeneracy far outlived Buffon and Jefferson; indeed, it seemed to have a life of its own. It continued to have scientific, economic, and political implications, but also began to work its way into literature and philosophy…” Nearly every time I stand before an audience and tell this tale someone in the audience asks a question akin to this: “I bet Count Buffon would be a climate change denier, if he was around today, right?” Wrong, he was way too smart for that. He was, after all, one of the leading French Enlightenment thinkers of his day. I could find no evidence that Buffon had political motives when publishing the theory of New World Degeneracy (the case is less clear for Buffon’s groupies like Raynal and de Pauw). He genuinely thought his idea had scientific merit. In that sense, this story differs from the climate change deniers, where the political motives of the promulgators of that misguided idea are evident. But, more importantly, Buffon’s ideas spread like wildfire. Histoire Naturelle was a best seller. Buffon’s ideas on American degeneracy were translated into German, Dutch, English and other languages. New World degeneracy ideas became so mainstream that there was a contest held in France on whether the discovery of America had been beneficial or harmful to the human race. Despite it being a best-seller, most people of the day hadn’t actually read Buffon, in part because Histoire Naturelle was very expensive. Instead people heard tell of his ideas in the newspapers, salons, pubs and restaurants across Europe (and eventually America). And, of course, they self-selected the information sources to the newspapers, salons, pubs and restaurants that fit their political (as well as epicurean) tastes. Which is to say everyone in Europe talked about the idea of New World Degeneracy, everyone had an opinion about it, but almost no one had a clue about what the data (Buffon or Jefferson’s) showed. They wanted to believe this New World, a potential existential threat to their vaunted position on the world stage, was inferior to their own. So they believed it. [post_title] => What Thomas Jefferson, Count Buffon, and A Giant Moose Can Teach Us About How Easily Dangerous Ideas Take Hold [post_excerpt] => A dangerously wrong idea takes hold not because followers understand it, but because it taps into what they desperately want – need? – to believe. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => what-thomas-jefferson-count-buffon-and-a-giant-moose-can-teach-us-about-how-easily-dangerous-ideas-can-take-hold [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-02 16:20:47 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-02 20:20:47 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005182 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 7 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005279 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2016-08-22 10:53:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-22 14:53:36 [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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