Lisa's post on evolution

Howie Chodos howie at
Wed Jul 5 21:58:55 MDT 1995

A couple of comments/questions re Lisa's recent post on evolution. Lisa says:

>doesn't distinguish between various causes of death, be it frostbite,
>warfare or predators.  Differential death can still result in genetic
>change, even if it is only in certain social environments.  (This is
>one of the reasons that I do not distiguish between
>material/social/environmental when talking about one's circumstances.

I worry that you draw a more general conclusion than is warranted. It is
true that death is death, and ends an organism's chance of passing on its
genes and participating in the evolutionary waltz. In this sense you are
right to not see a qualitative difference between causal factors. But is
this true about all of "one's circumstances"? That's where I sense you going
further than I would in not seeing the importance of the distinction. To the
extent that we can identify various causes of death we are able to try to do
something about them. And then it matters whether the causes are material,
social or environmental.

Further on Lisa writes:

>Archeologists sometimes attempt to talk
>about "modern behavior" or "modern cultural capacity" and such, based
>on artifact variation, burial practices, etc.  I don't see any good
>way to know where to draw the line.

Even if we don't know where to draw the line, do we agree that it is drawn
somewhere, and that this boundary marks a transition? This seems to me to be
analogous to saying that we do not know where the decisive break from our
hominid ancestors that set us apart as a species occurrred, but we know that
there was one. (And are legitimately pursuing scientific investigation of
the location of the boundary, in the expectation that it will tell us
something about what it means to be human).

>Some propose that cultural evolution works by group selection, while
>genetic evolution does not, and that this insight explains puzzling
>features of societies, such as conformity within groups and
>difference between groups.  I think there are easier, better
>explanations, so I don't quite buy it.  From what I've seen, I find
>it not contradictory with my own views, but unnecessary.

Are there single explanations for phenomena such as "conformity within
groups and differences between groups"? Is there not more than one plausible
reason for group conformity so that one can never be sure in advance whether
the underlying cause is a good or a bad thing? In some instances people will
conform for relatively good reasons, in others for relatively bad ones. And
this applies not only to moral judgments, but even if one defines good and
bad simply in terms of survival. Sometimes conformity will result in
survival, sometimes it will result in death.

Finally Lisa writes:

>As many may have noticed, I find it essential to be explicitly clear
>about who is acting, who gets benefits, who pays costs, etc.
>Neo-darwinians cannot have any loose talk that conflates the
>individual with the family, the village, the species or any group,
>because it only muddies the analytical water.  Of course the
>interests of each may overlap with others', but I would rather
>attempt to elucidate the relations between say an individual's
>interests and one's corporate matrilineage, than assume they are

I am not sure that the best explanations necessarily always go in one
direction. I agree that individuals need to be distinguished from their
interactions with their social and natural environments, and that
individuals are the source of action. But there can be no *human* action
outside of our interaction with each other. So, while the two aspects are
never identical, it is necessary to give each aspect its due. This means
recognizing causal efficacy for the collective dimension.

Howie Chodos

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