Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cultural evolution and biological evolution

Cultural and biological evolution are similar because natural selection acts in both cases. Cultural productions compete against one another and many become extinct. As in the case of living beings, not always the best win. Chance has an influence. In this way, for instance, Windows-95 threw OS-2 out of the market, even though at that time the second operating system was better. Another example is the result of the war between the three competing models of video recording: Betamax, 2000 and VHS.
In the same way that living beings exhibit genetic variability (many varieties of the same gene co-existing in the same population), there is also a cultural variability, represented by the co-existence of old and new makes and models of the same product. At times of big change in the environment (we are just now experiencing one) a cultural product may escape extinction thanks to its variability, by combining versions and producing something new, better adapted to the new circumstances.
The parallel is quite impressive. What we call a species in the biological world, may be considered similar to a civilization. But there are also deep differences between both phenomena.
While studies about biological evolution get back in time to one century and a half ago, those about cultural evolution are more recent: not even half a century. One of its pioneers, Richard Dawkins (who invented the term meme for cultural elements equivalent to genes) made the mistake of considering biological and cultural evolution as identical processes, forgetting their differences. Cultural evolution is almost exclusively typical of man and exhibits new phenomena, emergent features that make it quite different from biological evolution:
·         Cultural evolution is much faster.
·         Cultural elements pass between two different civilizations much more easily than genes among two different species of living beings (except perhaps bacteria).
·         Hybridization among different species is rare among living beings and usually gives rise to hybrid sterility. Cultural hybridization, on the other way, is very frequent, its results are usually fecund, and two unrelated cultural elements may even come together and build a new entity.
·         The concept of truth provides a criterion for cultural selection unknown with genes. A gene may be more useful for the survival of the individuals carrying it, but it cannot be said to be truer. For the survival of a meme, however, this concept may be essential. All the evolution of science is based on this. After two centuries of success, Newton’s gravitational theory was supplanted by Einstein’s general relativity because the latter was found to get nearer the truth (to describe the universe better). Dawkins, however, does not take this into account and insists on using only utility criteria. Thus his theory is incomplete.
A truer theory has, in a certain sense, a greater utility, even though established theories may provide greater political or economical advantages than truer theories. Scientists and philosophers have always declared that it is our duty to defend truth against every other kind of benefit. Duty is another concept usually forgotten by Dawkins and other biologists who work on memetics.

Manuel Alfonseca

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