Saturday, 9 March 2013

Tim Tyler: Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Darwinism and Human Affairs by Richard Alexander
The book was published in 1979. The contents represent what we would now call sociobiology. Unfortunately, this is the bad kind of sociobiology that tries to trace everything back to DNA genes.

The book offers a perspective similar to that of E.O. Wilson - who published similar works at around the same time.

I read it mainly in order to understand Richard's perspective on human culture from that era.

The book predates our modern understanding of cultural evolution and instead presents a view of culture based on DNA genes.

In a section titled: A comparison of organic and cultural evolution, Richard breaks cultural evolution down into inheritance, mutation, selection, drift and isolation. He then reviews existing literature relating to the modern perspective on cultural evolution citing the views of Dawkins, Durham, Cloak, Cavalii-Sforza, Feldman, Richerson and Boyd on the topic. This might all sound good. However, the section then goes on to dismiss this material, saying:

regularity of learning situations or environmental consistency is the link between genetic instructions and cultural instructions which makes the latter not a replicator at all, but in historical terms a vehicle of the genetic replicators.
Having thus dismissed the Darwinian view of culture which does so much useful work in modern times, Richard offers in its place the idea that cultural information is a persistent part of the environment that is influenced and manipulated by genes. This is true - as far as it goes. However, these days, we know that you can get a lot of mileage out of the idea that cultural variation evolves in a very similar way to the way genetic variation evolves - complete with selection, adapatation, drift, recombination, kin selection, gradualism and heritage constraint. Richard's model is not exactly wrong, it just isn't as helpful as it could be. Because culture evolves, evolutionary theory has a rich array of tools and models which can be directly applied to cultural variation without much modification. If you fail to recognise that, you don't get to use these tools and models.

It is rather frustrating for the reader to see the author toy with the correct theory - and then abandon it. On a more positive note, it was probably good to have the position that everything boils down to genes clearly articulated - to give critics something to argue against.

Most of the rest of the book is concerned with explaining various types of human behavior in terms of DNA genes. Richard looks at nepotism, incest avoidance, xenophobia and various other aspects of human affair with a biological basis. He engages with anthropologists critical of biological approaches. While he makes most of them look stupid, some of their objections make some sense retrospectively. One thing they were critical of was the over-application of kin selection theory. Looking at the kin selection being advocated back then, only kinship between DNA genes was used - and all other kin-like relationships were classified as fictive kinships, with the organisms involved being manipulated and fooled into thinking their colleagues are their kin. This now looks like a terribly impoverished kind of kin selection, in the light of cultural kin selection. There's memetic kinship, as well as genetic kinship. The anthropologists didn't have the concept of cultural kin selection back then either, but at least they recognized that there was much more to kinship than relatedness between DNA genes.

Richard bashes group selection here and there in the book, but his story of how humans evolved revolves heavily around conflict between groups. Because of this, modern group selection enthusiasts may find him an ally as much as an adversary. Here's a sound bite from the book on the non-equivalence of kin and group selection:

Despite the recent prominence accorded to the view that the maximization of inclusive fitness by helping the aggregate of one's relatives - or what Maynard Smith called "kin selection" is a kind of group selection, this is a misleading, if not erroneous view. Group selection thwarts the reproductive interests of individuals when these interests differ from those of the group. Kin selection is a way in which individuals further their genetic interests via other individuals who carry some of their genes.

While this might have sounded plausible at the time, it now looks wrong. Group selection has turned out to be a way in which heritable information perpetuates itself via promoting copies of itself in other group members.

The book finishes up with a look at justice and ethics. Richard says:

Arguments given above, and the cited references make it clear why I believe that evolution has more to say about why people do what they do than any other theory. In contrast, my answer to the question "What does evolution have to say about normative ethics, or defining what people ought to be doing?" is "Nothing whatsoever."

I think this is a cop-out. Evolutionary theory surely has more to say about this subject than any other branch of science. If intelligent people aren't supposed to use science to guide their ethics, then it isn't clear where they are supposed to be getting their ethical principles from. Richard says that he thinks that pain and pleasure are the basis of most normative ethics - but even if one accepts that, classifying these as "non-evolutionary" ignores the idea that the brain evolved, and the idea that the brain evolves over an individual's lifetime, using copying, variation, and selection in order to to seek its rewards. I don't think you can get away from evolutionary ethics this easily.

This is a nice book to read, but pretty out-of-date these days. However it is interesting to see part of the background that modern theories of culture and human evolution were developed against.


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