A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a Guardian review of the new Matt Ridley‘s book, The Evolution of Everything. In the past I read a couple of books of Ridley (The Red Queen and Genome), and the subtitle of this new one (“How new ideas emerge”) seemed quite relevant. On top of this, the Guardian review was not just negative, but full of genuine, quasi-emotional, hate for the volume, so I decided to invest some time to read it.
I am reading Tim Lewens’ new book Cultural Evolution (I am still halfway through it, so perhaps other posts will follow). One aspect I found interesting – and I imagine this will not come as a surprise to readers of this blog – is a peculiar conception of what identifies an approach to culture as “evolutionary”.
Lewens attacks the problem from a familiar perspective (see, for example, here), defining a taxonomy of possible evolutionary commitments for cultural explanations. As usual, some of them are too broad (Lewens calls them “historical” approaches), while others are too restrictive (he is skeptical of replication-based accounts of cultural evolution): things are more interesting in the middle.
There is a handful of psychology works that have the burdensome honour of informing our view of human behaviour, usually with spectacular results that tend to satisfy some of our preconceptions on how this behaviour should look like. Two of them, the Stanford prison experiment (showing that stable adults quickly become sadist prison guards, given the right situational cues) and the Milgram experiment (showing that stable adults are willing to obey to an authority, in this case the experimenter, to the point of administering painful electric shocks to unknown confederates of the experimenter), while retaining fascination in the large public, tend to be considered cautiously by scientists, and have been recently criticised in mainstream or quasi-mainstream media (see, for example, here, here, and here).
“Speaking our minds” was a great pleasure to read. The slim book provides even a non expert like myself with an accessible but, at the same time, in-depth treatment of language evolution. Scott-Phillips proposes us a coherent and, according to him, exhaustive, picture of the origins and evolution of language. The big questions are answered: we can proceed to the next topic.
I wonder how the community of linguists will feel in regard to this bold attitude (by the way, I am all for bold attitudes). As for myself, I can comment on a particular aspect of the book, that is, the role assigned to cultural attraction to explain some of the features of language. The basic idea behind the concept of cultural attraction is spelt out with remarkable clarity in “Speaking our minds”. In short, cultural transmission, differently from biological transmission, is a mainly reconstructive process. Each time we “copy” a cultural trait we are in fact reconstructing it starting from some pieces of information we gather from others. Individual modifications are not rare, and they are not errors. They are the crux of the cultural transmission process, and, importantly, they tend to be oriented in non-random ways (hence the notion of attractor).
Following the discussion in these two posts, and various conversations after a plenary talk of Pascal Boyer at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference last summer, I decided, together with Alex Mesoudi, to write a paper comparing some aspects of cultural attraction and “standard” cultural evolution. (This is, by the way, my current main research interest, and I hope to have more to say about it in the future).