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Ch. 1: Finding Your Inner Fish 
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Dawkins says in the just mentioned chapter of The Selfish Gene http://www.rubinghscience.org/memetics/ ... memes.html that "...one fundamental principle...is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process."

This sets up a biological law of equal status to Newton's laws of physical motion. Dawkins says "The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe"and asks "Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity ?" In answer, he gives three general qualities of successful replicators: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.

Hands on fish met these qualities and were successful.



Wed May 14, 2008 5:40 pm
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Robert,
I have not yet read the chapter from The Selfish Gene, so I won't comment on that part of your post. I will say that not everyone agrees with this concept. In fact, the other non-fiction book, Our Inner Ape begins with de Waal saying he believes this is a mistaken concept.

Darwinian evolution applied to cultural change.

Darwinian concepts:
1. An adaptation made by an organism enhances it's ability to survive long enough to reproduce and or increases the success rate of reproduction.
2. Adaptations come about through pre-adaptations, which are traits that already exist and become increasing useful due to environmental conditions.
Therefore, adaptations are selected because they increase survival and reproduction.

Underlying assumptions when darwinian evolutions is applied to culture:

1. cultural change = progress. I think anyone would be hard pressed to label many cultural changes as progress.
2. cultural change is in some way an adaptive response to an outside influence. Adaptive implies that a positive change has been made to enhance survival. There are so many examples of cultural changes that are not adaptive. Look at Native American (or if you prefer American Indian) culture and how it has changed. The changes did not come as adaptive responses to environmental forces. The changes came because of the self interest of the environmental forces (white people with power, taking the children of American Indians away and putting them in boarding schools 100's of miles away from families to enculturate them. The changes that resulted in native culture was in no way adaptive in the sense of increasing survival. It is more in the way of the psychological response to trauma. Another example is how Europe responded culturally after the Black Plague. Hedonism became very popular and faith in a god wained. It was very disruptive. Prior to the Black Plague it was believed that your worldly success was an indication of your favor with God and an indication that you were going to heaven. Of course the plague struck rich and poor indiscriminately. This fact did not go unnoticed. The resulting changes in religious beliefs were not necessarily adaptive, just changed as a result of experience.


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Last edited by Saffron on Mon May 19, 2008 3:40 am, edited 1 time in total.



Fri May 16, 2008 1:29 pm
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Hi Saffron


I hope it is okay here to try to unpack some of the baggage surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to cultural analysis, as this is where I see the most interesting message coming from Shubin and Dawkins. 'Fish hands' are a metaphor for all the pieces of genetic and cultural evolution which subsequently provide a stepladder for a wider transformation.

Your examples of the plague and the invasion of the Americas are worth exploring further. On another thread I raised the relation of nihilism (the view that nothing matters) to atheism. Catastrophic external forces inevitably produce a short term nihilistic response, as people find their dreams shattered and all their work destroyed. Speaking of short term evolution in such a context is irrelevant, except the evolution of the successful invader, whether botulism or white people. Evolution of the victim can only happen once the shock of destruction has stabilised. The vanquished in an assymetrical battle have no initial choice but to reel in dismay at the unfolding events, as they do not have time to evolve a competitive response. This highlights that an organism needs stability and time in order to evolve. Not necessarily peace, as antelopes evolve to escape lions in a continuing arms race, but stability.

Australian aborigines show a similar nihilistic reaction to modern racist white society as native Americans - with alcohol, drugs, violence, unemployment, crime, prison and despair the common themes. However, aboriginal people have a resilient cultural identity which provides them with resources to engage with modernity, partly through assimiliation, partly through defiance. It has been very hard for aborigines to articulate their pride in their identity when their languages have been banned, they have been treated as sub-human, their land and children have been stolen and they have been subject to overt and covert wars of cultural and physical genocide. However, this articulation of pride is an adaptive response, and can be analysed as a strategy of cultural evolution in a hostile environment.

Part of the issue here is that evolution is slow, and you cannot expect to see cultural evolution happen quickly in response to massive external shocks like the plague. There is bound to be a disfunctional adjustment. This can produce either a spiral to extinction or be turned around into an evolutionary response.

One of my favourite examples, just from my own observation, is an Australian native bird called the peewee, also known as the magpie lark. When I was a boy growing up in Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s, peewees were common, but were then decimated by cars, cats and Indian mynas, three invaders for which peewees initially had no answer. The interesting thing was to see them adapt to the new urban environment. They learnt to fight off the mynas and cats, and then, interestingly, started playing chicken with cars, sitting on the road and seeing how late they could fly away without being hit. This game had clear obvious adaptive benefit, and may have been as much cultural as genetic on the part of the peewees.

These are provocative and controversial themes, in that the fascist overtones of 'survival of the fittest' - eg Hans Eysenck, Herbert Spencer, Murray's The Bell Curve, etc -are present in any attempt to apply evolution to modern cultural and political contexts. The example of fascism shows how difficult it is to apply evolutionary theory to culture in a way that will be informative and productive. Hitler thought he had an adaptive strategy for cultural evolution, but was catastrophically wrong. My own view is that fascism is a mad and non-functional strategy for human cultural evolution, and that the Christian themes of compassion, justice and love will prove the most adaptive long term path. However, evolution towards an ethic of love faces all sorts of obstacles in human interests and pathologies. Some of the related questions I am interested in include what we should view as the 'entelechy' (Aristotle's word for end or purpose) of human life, and how we can assist our world to evolve towards such a telos.



Sat May 17, 2008 10:38 pm
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The first I heard of Neil Shubin and this book was, of all places, on the Steven Colbert Report. Informative and wacky interview:

http://www.comedycentral.com/colbertrep ... oId=147281

I'm embarrassed to admit, the first I heard of Frans De Waal and the other book we're discussing was also The Stephen Colbert Report! :laugh: I guess it's a better source for science news than one would expect. :whot: Please enjoy another informative yet bizarre interview:

http://www.comedycentral.com/colbertrep ... oId=148996



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Robert Tulip wrote:
I hope it is okay here to try to unpack some of the baggage surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to cultural analysis, as this is where I see the most interesting message coming from Shubin and Dawkins.


If I can butt in here for a moment, I'm wondering why, in view of problems you mention below with fascist interpretations, it's even a good idea to merge these two. I have difficulty seeing what advantage there is to a comparison that seems to apply only metaphorically. The huge difference is one of agency. In the case of Darwinian adaptation, the forces that produce the changes are seen to lie outside any intention by the organism. It doesn't matter for now what this force is, even if some would say it could be God.

[/quote]However, this articulation of pride is an adaptive response, and can be analysed as a strategy of cultural evolution in a hostile environment. [/quote]

Exactly. As you say here, the culture responds; it itself adopts a complex strategy as only humans could. There is certainly nothing like natural selection going on here (and I would also say that God is not controlling this). There is only a human product, culture, consisting of both the material and nonmaterial. To say that the culture responds to pressures, adapts, etc. is to say something true, but we shouldn't be fooled by the way this sounds--as if the agency is somehow external to the culture itself. It's all something that we do.
DWill


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Sun May 18, 2008 11:08 pm
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DWill wrote:
I'm wondering why, in view of problems you mention below with fascist interpretations, it's even a good idea to merge these two. I have difficulty seeing what advantage there is to a comparison that seems to apply only metaphorically. The huge difference is one of agency. In the case of Darwinian adaptation, the forces that produce the changes are seen to lie outside any intention by the organism. It doesn't matter for now what this force is, even if some would say it could be God.

Thanks DWill, my point is precisely that the comparison between cultural memes and physical genes is mechanical, not just metaphorical. Culture does in fact evolve by the Darwinian mechanism of cumulative adaptation. The free will of human agency is just one small factor in determining which strategies will prove adaptive. We do not decide which cultural forms will succeed



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That was awesome.



Mon May 19, 2008 7:59 pm
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Post I'm having an idea
:idea:
I think I've finally got an idea of how to have this discussion about cultural evolution. First, we need to make sure we are all talking the same language. Let's begin with laying out the definitions of the terms and concepts we are using.

Here is the wikipedia blurb for meme:

Quote:
A meme (pronounced /miːm/[1]) consists of any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity. Memes propagate themselves and can move through a "culture" in a manner similar to the behavior of a virus. As a unit of cultural evolution, a meme in some ways (my bold) resembles a gene.


I think we need definitions for adaptation and evolution. Any others? After we get past the semantics, I'd like to do a little experiment. It goes like this: we (Robert?) work through an example of cultural evolution in the very same way that Neil Shubin has step by step described the evolution of the ear or eye or any other example from his book.

Ok, let the games begin!

Saffron


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Mon May 19, 2008 8:19 pm
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Rob,

I'm having a hard time with something of my own... making it work in my head. I have a belief that all change is ultimately towards an equilibrium (nothing to do with equality). I can't accept forced changes that take away the freedoms of individuals and how they force someone to accept a current meme.

Like human rights. Is this an inevitable change? Something that doesn't need to be forced because we are heading in that direction anyway (towards the equilibrium)? It's too early to tell if we are heading in that direction, but hypothetically speaking, lets say we are. Then wouldn't the effort to force change be rather pointless on a large time scale? Especially considering the fact that it could be 'wrong'?

(I'm absolutely pro human rights - I just needed an example)

Is it that the culture was ready for it and there was finally some burst to make it happen? Like when most notable evolutionary changes occur in nature - it is rather spontaneous.

Maybe you can help me fill in the blanks...



Mon May 19, 2008 9:35 pm
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President Camacho wrote:
Rob, I'm having a hard time with something of my own... making it work in my head. I have a belief that all change is ultimately towards an equilibrium (nothing to do with equality).
Camacho, reminds me of Comanche... I don't see how all change is towards equilibrium. Rather, evolution produces increased complexity, until a periodic crisis of destruction after which a new ecosystem stabilises and evolves. Life is counter-entropic, so time moves in a sinusoidal way around equilibria, from highly evolved complex systems which can sit in equilibrium for long periods punctuated by asteroid impacts and other apocalypses.
Quote:
I can't accept forced changes that take away the freedoms of individuals and how they force someone to accept a current meme. Like human rights. Is this an inevitable change? Something that doesn't need to be forced because we are heading in that direction anyway (towards the equilibrium)?
PC, this is slightly confusing to me. Law is a forced meme, so your argument seems to imply an anarchistic opposition to property and stability. Are you arguing that views on human rights constitute a forced meme? This is true in so far as rights are upheld by law.
Quote:
It's too early to tell if we are heading in that direction, but hypothetically speaking, lets say we are. Then wouldn't the effort to force change be rather pointless on a large time scale? Especially considering the fact that it could be 'wrong'? (I'm absolutely pro human rights - I just needed an example)
Perhaps my last sentence missed your point, but could you please expand on this? Some efforts to force change will be in synch with the times and will work, whereas others will not.
Quote:
Is it that the culture was ready for it and there was finally some burst to make it happen? Like when most notable evolutionary changes occur in nature - it is rather spontaneous. Maybe you can help me fill in the blanks...
Stephen Jay Gould developed the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibria, in which organisms and ecosystems are stable for aeons, with disasters creating new eras. We are currently in the fastest moment of evolutionary change since the extinction of the dinosaurs in 65 million BC, so I think you are right that large scale spontaneous bursts are inevitable.



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Saffron wrote:
:idea: I think I've finally got an idea of how to have this discussion about cultural evolution. First, we need to make sure we are all talking the same language. Let's begin with laying out the definitions of the terms and concepts we are using. Here is the wikipedia blurb for meme:
Quote:
A meme (pronounced /miːm/[1]) consists of any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity. Memes propagate themselves and can move through a "culture" in a manner similar to the behavior of a virus. As a unit of cultural evolution, a meme in some ways (my bold) resembles a gene.
I think we need definitions for adaptation and evolution. Any others? After we get past the semantics, I'd like to do a little experiment. It goes like this: we (Robert?) work through an example of cultural evolution in the very same way that Neil Shubin has step by step described the evolution of the ear or eye or any other example from his book. Ok, let the games begin! Saffron


This is a great idea. Examples of cultural evolution can be found in medical technology, sport, war, music, agriculture, computing, the internet... There are also areas analogous to genetic drift, such as clothing fashion, where the criteria for adaptivity are far removed from any utility. Good background is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptation and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution



Tue May 20, 2008 8:33 am
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Adaptation from Wikipedia:

Quote:
An adaptation is a positive characteristic of an organism that has been favored by natural selection and increases the fitness of its possessor.[1][2] Of course, an adaptation must have been adaptive at some point in an organism's evolutionary history, but such an organism's environment and ecological niche can change over time, leading to adaptations becoming redundant or even a hindrance (maladaptations). Such adaptations are termed vestigial.


I hope no one minds the definitions being pulled from Wikipedia.


Evolution:
Quote:
In biology, evolution is the process of change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. The genes that are passed on to an organism's offspring produce the inherited traits that are the basis of evolution. Mutations in genes can produce new or altered traits in individuals, resulting in the appearance of heritable differences between organisms


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Wed May 21, 2008 8:17 am
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I think if we keep these quotes in mind when we are posting it would benefit all of us.


Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
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Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached.

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Robert Tulip wrote:
Culture does in fact evolve by the Darwinian mechanism of cumulative adaptation.

Robert, though I'm not setting myself up as as a Darwin expert, I do view myself as a strict constructionist where his theory is concerned. I would need to have a definition of "Darwinian cumulative adaptation," because right now I doubt that the first word belongs in the phrase for the context in which you want to use it. I also favor strongly Saffron's proposal to agree on terms, so that we are not using "adaptation," "evolution," and other words in their popular sense rather than the way I think the biologists understand them.
[quote]We do not decide which cultural forms will succeed


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Wed May 21, 2008 9:47 pm
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DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Culture does in fact evolve by the Darwinian mechanism of cumulative adaptation.

Robert, though I'm not setting myself up as as a Darwin expert, I do view myself as a strict constructionist where his theory is concerned. I would need to have a definition of "Darwinian cumulative adaptation," because right now I doubt that the first word belongs in the phrase for the context in which you want to use it. I also favor strongly Saffron's proposal to agree on terms, so that we are not using "adaptation," "evolution," and other words in their popular sense rather than the way I think the biologists understand them.

Darwinian thought is the antithesis of constructionism, which interprets all thought as artefact, rather than as reflection of reality. Cumulative adaptation is the essence of Darwinist thought. A review of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker at http://www.geocities.com/a_and_e_uk/Bli ... htm?200822 states [quote] "In Chapter 3 Dawkins starts to describe the processes involved in evolution. He shows, with the aid of computer programs, how cumulative adaptation vastly increases the probability of a structure developing. This is convincingly demonstrated by a computer which takes an input phrase, 'mutates' it and then selects the best mutant progeny to 'breed' the next generation of mutant phrases from it. In this case 'best' is defined as closest to the target



Thu May 22, 2008 5:48 am
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