Professor Martin’s anecdotal gem of his late-night, wine-infused conversation with David Sloan Wilson and (who was the other guy? Some equally formidable transdisciplinarian, no doubt…) encouraged me to re-approach the viability of Darwinian evolution as a “universal blueprint” applicable beyond the substrate of organic life. Martin revealed that a fundamental thought-engine for these dudes is the informal hypothesis that everything in the universe can be explained by something approximating Darwin’s theory of natural selection. To paraphrase Martin, “THIS is the question that these guys are asking” - implying that when these guys get together and reach the second or third bottle of wine, Symposium-style, it’s this million-dollar proposal that gets verbalized one way or another.
While reviewing the ideas of Dennett and - by proxy - Dawkins, I was skeptical of the practice of applying the biological terminology of taxonomy and phylogeny to cultural and social structures. Although I myself am a lover of the plasticity of language and the “play” it allows, I was uncomfortable with the feeling that these figures of speech were perhaps intended as more than metaphor. No doubt, the ontological stratum occupied by human culture - where cultural transmission takes place - is indeed a complex adaptive system of SOME sort, but it is inherently more complex than the stratum of biotic life alone, (* I've re-worked this thought, see Addendum below...) Indeed, it is from the latter substrate that the occasion for the former arises. When we talk about the process of evolution — what we are talking about is the algorithmic transmission of qualia - of kind. We are also de facto talking about another process that variably collides with or catalyzes this forward-branching progression… the process of “selection”, which can perhaps be understood from another angle as any instance wherein the perpetuation of a kind of thing is “allowed”. There is no doubt that a process of this sort is revealed by the unfolding of cultural history and the transmission of cultural representations. The articulation of a field of memetics is one attempt to designate a scientific paradigm equipped to analyze the “evolution of ideas”, where ideas and their transmission are compared haphazardly to genes and heredity. It is clear to me that memetics is still in the phase of establishment, and we should all work with that in mind.
So, Darwin’s idea applied directly to cultural transmission — all I’m saying is not so fast. It's more complex than that. Perhaps this is a straw man argument and perhaps everyone is disciplining themselves to be duly cautious. To be clear, an open, interdisciplinary dialectic is precisely what is needed.
This all being said, perhaps I can move on to the point of this ramble. Martin’s story at the end of class seemed to be just the right combination of whimsical and profound - I effortlessly found myself playing with the tipsy provocation that had been central to the anecdote. And I decided to engage in a thought experiment where I tried to take the process of natural selection as far back as possible. So before humans and human culture there were social primates, then further back in time there were some mammals, and before that some vertebrates, then finally we get down to a hypothetical point where all earthlings were single-celled organisms. And the way we got to that point (it gets blurry here because this is missing-link territory) was - as DSW offers - something like multiple stages of grouping together of things - atoms, molecules, proteins - that were for myriads of chemical and physical reasons attracted to each other. And at some point groups of proteins were aggregating to make DNA, and then those grouped together to become chromosomes, and then those chromosomes grouped together, too, etc. When considering the idea of “chemical evolution” (thanks to Wilfried from Socialfiction!), I realized that natural selection, viewed in retrograde like this, simply can’t begin with biological selection. When did biological evolution begin, really? Perhaps a process of chemical selection at certain instances graduated to a new “operating system” of algorithms, say for example when proteins figured out how to replicate themselves. But to believe in natural selection itself as being an ex nihilo phenomenon seems completely hypocritical for someone who means to truly sip the kool-aid that delivers the epistemological acid that Dennett speaks of. Isn’t to posit that “evolution” started somewhere - to look for an ultimate origin - just a mirror image of the teleological mistake? What we call “evolution” is perhaps itself an emergent phenomena built on the foundation of even more fundamental forms of “selection”, at the chemical and even atomic levels.
-Monday, March 2-
In response to several comments from friends, I just want to rework a strand of thought in this essay - that regarding the question of a difference in complexity between the substrate of biological evolution and that of cultural evolution. Feedback is much appreciated!
...I feel like I’m eating my words about memetic evolution being “more complex” than genetic evolution. I think I articulated it carelessly, but it truly has made a great jumping-off point for arguement. Indeed, cultural evolution is physically encompassed by biological constraints (human bodies and minds). And - as I’ve said myself before when discussing economies and ecosystems - in terms of potential outcomes and arrangements, a system can’t be more complex than the system which contains it (this is essentially the law of fractal-invariance…) For example, our economy can’t be workably predicated on the notion of infinite growth, because infinite economic growth (which is ipso facto the transformation of natural capital) isn’t possible within a finite, mostly closed system (our planet).
I think the error I may have made involved using ‘complex’ as a descriptor where I should have said ‘complicated’. Relative simplicity is not necessarily a measure of complexity. For example, the abstract board game “Go” - a two-player game played on a gridded board - is parametrically incredibly simple; it essentially has two rules. The simple rules and design of Go allow for an incredibly high number of potential legal game positions and possible games played. Moreover, if one wanted to, one could play Go on a bigger board with more cells, increasing the aforementioned potential values. Often simplicity in design (like optimization of the abilities of elements or agents - in this case, the degree of freedom a player has in a given turn) occasions a great deal of complexity when such elements are involved in some sort of temporal relational order.
But I digress. Let’s use a continuum of fractal invariance to represent the relationship between biological evolution and cultural evolution - the two substrates being in essence part of the same fractal. Is any part of a fractal more complex than another part? Well, no, in the sense that a fractal can never begin to follow different mathematical schema in the course of its growth or unfolding. If it did it would cease to be a fractal. Underlying algorithms stay the same throughout the ‘body’ of the fractal; and its growth simply involves the patterned addition of more (and smaller) of the same units, potentially ad infinitum. Cultural evolution may occur at higher rates and on different scales than biological evolution, but changes in rate and scale do not indicate changes in underlying order. When we are dealing with cultural evolution and biological evolution, we are dealing with a sub-system and its ‘parent system’, respectively. In this case, the sub system often creates the inconvenient perceptual illusion of being independent from its parent system, and yes, the illusion of being ‘more complex’ when it is indeed an extension of The Fractal. However, the cog. sci. pioneers are working to reveal this illusion as merely “sleight-of-epistemology”, to coin a phrase…