So, how Darwinian is cultural evolution? #DarwinLecture

Attended the Newcastle (North East Humanists) Darwin Day event last night. Durham University Research Fellow in Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Dr Thom Scott-Phillips asking the question “How Darwinian is Cultural Evolution?”

For someone whose strongest reading recommendation was “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by (my hero) Dan Dennett, in support of the idea of memes and memetic evolution, I didn’t totally warm (*) to Scott-Phillips and his thesis that cultural evolution isn’t Darwinian.

And again to his credit, he emphasised the is-not-ought distinction between science and ethical choices – the seemingly slippery slope from “Social Darwinism” to Eugenics, the Nazis and such like – but I still felt his science was on the autistic side.

Sure not all cultural evolution is strictly Darwinian – not literally the same on the Variation – Selection – Reproduction “process” test as presented. And yes, “memes” can be hard to pin down objectively. But then neither are genes and biological evolution always entirely objective and Darwinian – (don’t believe that?) There are wide spectra and many levels for each of those three process components between individuals and populations, between literal physical “copying” in reproduction (say of stories and jokes) and communication of their essential messages. The memes are in the semantics (meaning), not any particular level of syntax (physical encoding), reproduction can be at any (physical or rhetorical) level between these. Irony matters.

The “cultural” (ie non-biological) messages are both communicated and evolved. It’s a matter of degree which processes are most significant on the Darwinian scale. We need the concepts of fidelity, fecundity and fertility applied to the right objects and populations. (Points made by a couple of good questioners, who challenged Scott-Phillips’s thesis on the night. Fidelity – how accurately each copy is made, syntactically or semantically, and Fecundity – how many copies in each “generation” – but also how distributed in populations in space and time, and Fertility, – biologically, reproducability depends on the “fertility” of the offspring generation of the “species”. Another minefield for over-simplified science.)

It’s central to my own agenda, and nothing personal, but Scott-Phillips is typical of a vocal class of scientists that pay lip-service to keeping is distinct from ought – focussing on the objective science they know best, whilst having the (human) right to hold ethical opinions. Having a “moral compass” arrived at with (human) society at large, that can nevertheless somehow be based on that same (independent) objective rationality underlying their science. (The brief sojourn into “trolleyology” towards the end of the evening only served to show how inadequate such reasoning really is. Science is simply incoherent when it comes to rational morality – too greedy-reductionist to coin a Dennett phrase. Humanism is a lot more than science.)

Some very good stuff on folk-physics and folk-psychology but nothing on how common “templates” emerge whether evolution is strictly Darwinian or more chaotically driven to “strange attractors” in the “problem space”. Essentially common stories, common causal folk explanations, common practices (like blood-letting) arising independently in different populations at different times without any apparent “communication” possible between them. Too dismissive of “intuition” – not allowed to inform the debate on the relation between folk knowledge and some apparently more “objective” rationality in the scientific method.

Not to mention the whole nature-nurture debate. Not to mention Scott-Phillips own history and inspiration from the first BHA Darwin Day to his current career. Not to mention … a good deal more in my notes.

In summary, some very good good content, allowed me to learn a few ways to better organise my own thinking, and inherently interesting. A good event.



(*) Not the best evening for extraneous reasons:

  • Light, sound, staging, visuals, speaker refreshment, audience mikes not really up to the event. Organising and stewarding provided well by NE Humanists, but the whole in-theatre experience handled single-handedly by BHA’s @Ian_M_Scott (Again, full-marks for enthusiastic commitment, but the boy needs help; A first attempt for such an out-of-London event, so teething troubles hopefully.)
  • And sad to hear Richard Dawkins had suffered a minor stroke so was unable to participate as chair, but full marks to Matt Ridley for stepping in. He has a sufficiently commanding presence and assured knowledge that he could provide his own suggestion to the tough audience questions Scott-Phillips made clear really didn’t want to address, and to managing the audience participation generally. (Matt’s the man, after Dennett and Pinker maybe, to go to for nature-nurture arguments in non-biological evolution.)


[Post Notes 12 June 2016 – Scott-Phillips also speaking on Evolutionary Psychology at BHA 2016 in Birmingham this weekend:

Three good signs of progress there in Scott-Phillips story. (See my comments above from Newcastle.) In fact, that confirmation-bias point is important. Much-maligned science of “Evo-Psych” brings rhetoric in from the cold. Real progress. Confirmation-bias is just another word for fidelity and fecundity – no point challenging every copy of an idea, it needs to be reproduced and reinforced many times before we have “a thing” worth evolving. Evolution is mostly about many cycles of conservatism, with small injections of mutation. All mutation is death / chaos / nihil.

Actually Lucy’s “not even wrong” comment is a sign of popularity of the scientistic dogma – that ethics is somehow entirely within a single Darwinian view of science. Now that, in fact, is the dangerous meme.

OK, good to end on some sensible conclusions.

Real human progress needs real human conversations. Looking forward to the video recording being published.]

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