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Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"? 
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Post Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
I thought it might be worthwhile to pose certain pointed questions in separate threads. Wright calls cultural evolution a "blind, blundering device" in chapter 3. Obviously, he means to liken it in this way to physical evolution, which I think in the view of most who believe in evolution at all, is indeed a blind process. This blindness can hold even if we say that an effect of the process appears like directionality towards complexity. But is cultural evolution similarly blind? I think that in Wright's own discussion of cultural evolution is evidence that contradicts his assertion.



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Sun Sep 05, 2010 8:11 am
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
Richard Dawkins says that faith is blind, and Robert Wright observes that faith is a main factor in cultural evolution, so to the extent cultural evolution depends on faith it is blind. However, cultural evolution also draws on reason, which can see. There is a strange mix in human psychology between vision and blindness. We use our brains to see and understand the world while also holding to an irrational loyalty and trust for traditional authorities.

My view is that we have reached a point in global cultural evolution where blindness is very dangerous, and we need to focus on those parts of psychology that can see. The trouble is that many people think they can see but are actually somewhat blind. Too much blundering about in the dark presents very high risks.

A great example of illusory vision is communism, with its slogan "reason in revolt now thunders". Communists imagined they had an enlightened understanding of reality but were actually blind to major factors such as the role of markets in economics.



Sun Sep 05, 2010 4:23 pm
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
My main disagreement with Wright is that we do partly evolve our culture, not usually just as we intend to, sometimes even with an effect opposite to our intent, but still we are agents. When we look at culture/history from afar and see a mass-mind at work, we aren't able to see the more fine-grained picture, wherein even a single individual can take culture/history in a new direction. In 1848, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin with the express intent of turning Northerners against the institution of slavery. Ten years later, about 20 miles from where I'm living, John Brown began his action in Harpers Ferry that he thought would lead to a slave uprising against whites. He failed, but while sitting in his prison cell in Charles Town awaiting execution, he must have glimpsed the profound effect his action would have on the country. In his own book, Wright talks about Saul/Paul of the NT, who, whatever his true motivations, intended to create or institutionalize a new culture, and by any account succeeded. All of these people needed the push of momentum to carry them along, so they didn't achieve what they did alone. Each was riding the top of a wave that did not originate from impersonal forces.



Sun Sep 05, 2010 7:17 pm
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
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My main disagreement with Wright is that we do partly evolve our culture, not usually just as we intend to, sometimes even with an effect opposite to our intent, but still we are agents. When we look at culture/history from afar and see a mass-mind at work, we aren't able to see the more fine-grained picture, wherein even a single individual can take culture/history in a new direction.


This reminds me of a quote from Neitzsche about the virtue of virtue. What is required is a higher order analysis. We can say that since we are intentional agents, we direct the ebb and flow of culture. However, this is only a first order perspective on cultural transmission. We need to analyze the intention of intention. For example, a single person as the fulcrum of a cultural shift such as John Brown is rare. What is even more rare is to intentionally be such a fulcrum. I'm not sure if fulcrum is a fitting word, but I hope you understand my intent. Today, we can see the same distinction between an internet video that is viral, and an internet video that is intentionally designed to be viral. Viral videos are ubiquitous, but viral videos which were originally intended to become viral are more rare.

Even then, to use the rare viral internet videos which were intended to be viral as examples possibly commits the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. For each video that was intended to be viral and actually succeeded, how many videos were intended to be viral yet failed?

We are most definitely agents in the spread of our culture, but when you shift perspective 'upwards'(as you must to analyze culture from a memetic perspective) you see that we are also the 'environment.' It's in this sense that to truly understand memetics for what it's worth, you have to apply the Necker Cube analogy that Dawkins uses in the beginning of his book "The Selfish Gene." We are speaking of the same thing when we speak of "popular ideas" versus "memes", but to truly understand memetics you need to shift your perspective to view people as not only the 'agents', but the 'environment'.



Sun Sep 05, 2010 7:36 pm
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
Interbane wrote:

This reminds me of a quote from Neitzsche about the virtue of virtue. What is required is a higher order analysis. We can say that since we are intentional agents, we direct the ebb and flow of culture. However, this is only a first order perspective on cultural transmission. We need to analyze the intention of intention. For example, a single person as the fulcrum of a cultural shift such as John Brown is rare. What is even more rare is to intentionally be such a fulcrum. I'm not sure if fulcrum is a fitting word, but I hope you understand my intent. Today, we can see the same distinction between an internet video that is viral, and an internet video that is intentionally designed to be viral. Viral videos are ubiquitous, but viral videos which were originally intended to become viral are more rare.

I think I'm satisfied merely with people having a role, an involvement, in directing cultural change. It's a great, lumbering vehicle, no doubt, and it's as though they can somehow, sometimes, influence a plane on autopilot. I agree that to intend to be a fulcrum probably doesn't happen except on a very small scale, a scale from which general history wouldn't be changed. In the historical perspective, we are reading intent into the acts of people as we look back on these acts, attributing intent to change history from the fact that history did indeed change.
Quote:
Even then, to use the rare viral internet videos which were intended to be viral as examples possibly commits the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. For each video that was intended to be viral and actually succeeded, how many videos were intended to be viral yet failed?

The attribution of intent depends on the success of the effort.
Quote:
We are most definitely agents in the spread of our culture, but when you shift perspective 'upwards'(as you must to analyze culture from a memetic perspective) you see that we are also the 'environment.' It's in this sense that to truly understand memetics for what it's worth, you have to apply the Necker Cube analogy that Dawkins uses in the beginning of his book "The Selfish Gene." We are speaking of the same thing when we speak of "popular ideas" versus "memes", but to truly understand memetics you need to shift your perspective to view people as not only the 'agents', but the 'environment'.

I might be hampered here by a resistance to going with the memetic flow. It's my substitute for theism to to believe that real agency, limited free will, springing from a source that we can't put our finger on, exists in the universe. But this agency is not of a mimetic sort.



Last edited by DWill on Mon Sep 06, 2010 7:22 am, edited 2 times in total.



Mon Sep 06, 2010 7:21 am
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
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I might be hampered here by a resistance to going with the memetic flow. It's my substitute for theism to to believe that real agency, limited free will, springing from a source that we can't put our finger on, exists in the universe. But this agency is not of a mimetic sort.


Change your beliefs for a bit. It's like putting on a new coat. Maybe it'll suit you better, maybe not. At least you can say you're attempting to rise above the limits of your evolutionary heritage. I'm still undecided, but that's just the way I am. I'm undecided about most everything. But I'm confident about many things. Hmm. :?



Mon Sep 06, 2010 11:19 am
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
Interbane wrote:
Change your beliefs for a bit. It's like putting on a new coat. Maybe it'll suit you better, maybe not. At least you can say you're attempting to rise above the limits of your evolutionary heritage. I'm still undecided, but that's just the way I am. I'm undecided about most everything. But I'm confident about many things. Hmm. :?

Yeah, but you can't just change your beliefs when the alternate belief is something that appears to you as basically false.



Last edited by DWill on Mon Sep 06, 2010 2:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Mon Sep 06, 2010 2:25 pm
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Post Re: Is Cultural Evolution a "Blind, Blundering Device"?
Interbane wrote:
We can say that since we are intentional agents, we direct the ebb and flow of culture. However, this is only a first order perspective on cultural transmission. We need to analyze the intention of intention. For example, a single person as the fulcrum of a cultural shift such as John Brown is rare. What is even more rare is to intentionally be such a fulcrum. I'm not sure if fulcrum is a fitting word, but I hope you understand my intent. Today, we can see the same distinction between an internet video that is viral, and an internet video that is intentionally designed to be viral. Viral videos are ubiquitous, but viral videos which were originally intended to become viral are more rare.

Even then, to use the rare viral internet videos which were intended to be viral as examples possibly commits the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. For each video that was intended to be viral and actually succeeded, how many videos were intended to be viral yet failed?

We are most definitely agents in the spread of our culture, but when you shift perspective 'upwards'(as you must to analyze culture from a memetic perspective) you see that we are also the 'environment.' It's in this sense that to truly understand memetics for what it's worth, you have to apply the Necker Cube analogy that Dawkins uses in the beginning of his book "The Selfish Gene." We are speaking of the same thing when we speak of "popular ideas" versus "memes", but to truly understand memetics you need to shift your perspective to view people as not only the 'agents', but the 'environment'.


Asking if Cultural Evolution is a "Blind, Blundering Device" opens the problem of rival theories of history. The Great Man theory held that history can be largely explained by the impact of "great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. The alternative, associated with Marxist economic determinism, says leaders are merely products of their social environment.

My view is that you have to combine these extremes, recognising the primacy of will and intent in shaping events, while seeing that opportunity is a product of social context. The great leaders of history have had the will and vision to understand their context and rise to prominence by striking while the iron is hot. A common thread in the vision of leaders is a deep intuitive feeling for their social environment, a political style that is in tune with the sentiments of their age. So the leader becomes the expression of the meme, which otherwise might remain hidden and may even dissolve as opportunity for its expression fades away.

Nothing is inevitable in history, it all depends on human decisions, which are shaped by a complex combination of accidents and trends.

The example of Jesus Christ is a good one to study against the great man framework. We have no real evidence that Jesus even lived, but many Christians would regard him as the greatest man of all history. Asking if cultural evolution is blind helps to explain the story of Jesus. The conquest of Israel by Rome set in train widespread popular reactions among the Jews. These reactions had what we might call a 'blundering evolution', just in the sense that there was no way the Jews were going to simply accept Roman rule, with statues of Caligula in the temple, etc etc. Some reaction was certainly inevitable. However, the precise form of this reaction, leading to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD and the rise of the Christian belief that Rome was the Antichrist, depended on the actual decisions and views of the people involved. To some extent these actions were blindly emotional, and to some extent they were deliberate and intentional. The Christian Gospels and Epistles concentrated the Jewish vision into the person of Jesus Christ, one divine leader who could bear and transform the sin of the world. This focusing took the blind sentiment of cultural evolution and gave it specific meaning and intent. So we see that the intelligent description of world trends by political and religious leaders becomes the fulcrum to transform shapeless trends driven by material factors such as technology, trade, climate and culture into actual historical movements with specific purpose and goals.



Mon Sep 06, 2010 6:03 pm
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