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Human Culture is Lamarckian

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Before Darwin thought up his theory of evolution, there was another game in town: Lamarckism. Lamarckism is the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it has acquired in its lifetime to its offspring. His theory was wrong, obviously, because organisms pass on traits through genes, while what an organism acquires throughout its lifetime is not inherited by any future offspring. However, just because Lamarck was wrong on how traits were passed down doesn’t mean that Lamarckism has no utility in our understanding of ourselves. (Lamarckism is also a precursor to the new and budding field of epigenetics—“the study of heritable gene expression that does not involve changes to the underlying gene sequence”, see here for another view on epigenetics.) Human culture is Lamarckian in a sense—along with memes are why cultural change put such strong selective pressures on humans.

Lamarckism is the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the transformational pattern of evolution and the concept of directed changes. Thinking of about this in a way that pertains to human culture, we can say that cultural tendencies starting at 1 generation can be passed down to successive generations; culture can transform itself in the blink of any eye, really, and completely change how people’s live as well as how they evolve; and finally directed cultural change (ie if a new cultural trait passed down will continue in successive generations). Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his 1996 book Full House:

In this sense, I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social organizations as “cultural evolution.” Using the same term – evolution – for both natural and cultural history obfuscates far more than it enlightens. … Why not speak of something more neutral and descriptive — ‘cultural change,’ for example?

But cultural change, on a radical other hand, is potentially Lamarckian in basic mechanism. Any cultural knowledge acquired in one generation can be directly passed to the next by what we call, in a most noble word, education.

This uniquely and distinctively Lamarckian style of human cultural inheritance gives our technological history a directional and cumulative character that no natural Darwinian evolution can possess.

This uniquely and distinctively Lamarckian style of human cultural inheritance gives our technological history a directional and cumulative character that no natural Darwinian evolution can possess.

Human cultural change is an entirely distinct process operating under radically different principles that do allow for the strong possibility of a driven trend to what we may legitimately call “progress”.

The common designation of “evolution” then leads to one of the most frequent and portentous errors in our analysis of human life and history – the overly reductionist assumption that the Darwinian natural paradigm will fully encompass our social and technological history as well.

Gould also wrote in his essay “Bully for Brontosaurus“:

I am convinced that comparisons between biological evolution and human cultural or technological change have done vastly more harm than good — and examples abound of this most common of all intellectual traps. Biological evolution is a bad analogue for cultural change because the two are different for three major reasons that could hardly be more fundamental.

First, cultural evolution can be faster by orders of magnitude than biological change at its maximal Darwinian rate — and questions of timing are of the essence in evolutionary arguments.

Second, cultural evolution is direct and Lamarckian in form: [t]he achievements of one generation are passed directly to descendants, thus producing the great potential speed of cultural change. Biological evolution is indirect and Darwinian, as favorable traits do not descend to the next generation unless, by good fortune, they arise as products of genetic change.

Third, the basic topologies of biological and cultural change are completely different. Biological evolution is a system of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. In human history, transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of cultural change.

Great explanations on how human culture is Lamarckian; education is one of the most important aspects of how we transfer ideas from one generation to the next. Put in that context, since education is how we (partly) teach our culture to the next generation, culture and education are both inherently Lamarckian.

Gould, being the Darwinist that he is,  obviously accepts that H. Sapiens arose through Darwinian/Mendelian changes as a result of the long-term evolutionary process. But, he asserts, culture is more Lamarckian—that is, it can be literally passed down from one generation to the next. When you really think about culture, this is how it works. Human culture is a Lamarckian, not Darwinian process.

We do have gene-culture co-evolution, which explains that human behavior is a product of two interacting variables—genetics and culture. When you really think about it, this is correct. Culture is the environment that we make for ourselves. The environments we make for ourselves are dependent on our genetics, therefore any cultural change SHOULD coincide with a change in genotype (since culture is phenotype). But when a new cultural tendency is introduced from an outside source, it can be especially powerful (like all cultural traits), enough to change the environment and, with it, make a new selective pressure that spreads new and beneficial mutations in that environment.

I, however, don’t think that ‘evolution’ is a good term for cultural changes. “Evolution” in this sense implies “progress”. Progressive evolution makes no evolutionary sense, so, in this case, cultural change makes much more sense than cultural ‘evolution’ (Gould, 1996); implying a teleological meaning to anything and everything is ridiculous, when what we’re really doing is anything to survive and pass our selfish genes on to the next generation. Culture, on the other hand, can be transferred to one person from another from generation to generation (in a Lamarckian way or in terms of memes).

As I stated in my article about Stephen Jay Gould’s tirade against hereditarianism, I fully understand exactly why Gould espoused anti-hereditarian views—his and Eldredge’s punctuated equilibria theory, which is when an organism spends a long time in stasis before a quick genetic change (like what happened with human brains, a long period of stasis before a quick change) which he obviously applied to Man after we became ‘Man’ around 50kya and his (correct) views on human culture being Lamarckian. In my opinion, Gould assumed that since culture was Lamarckian and we all have ‘the same brains’ (we don’t), that the only differences between Man comes down to his culture. We know this is not true as differing selection pressures led to differences in brain size and, in turn, differences in culture. The diverse array of culture that Man has is a testament to the different evolutionary selection pressures that we had to weather in the differing environments that we settled in coming out of Africa.

There is also one more way in which culture can be spread: memes. (I wonder how many of the people who use the term ‘meme’ know where it originated [The Selfish Gene, 1976] or even who coined the term [Richard Dawkins].) Take, for example, birth control. The Catholic meme of birth control can have adherents of said meme not take birth control, facilitating the “reproductive success” of the meme, so to speak, which does the same for the memer. Thusly, in this context, memes are subject to the same evolutionary selection pressures— so if a meme is ‘unfit’ it gets ‘thrown out’, just like if a meme is ‘fit’ it stays in the culture (eventually becoming a new selective pressure for that population), which makes new pheno and genotypic changes in that population completely independent of all other genetic changes throughout the world in genetically isolated human populations. Memes are one huge way that culture gets transmitted between generations, and even differing human cultures. Memes are a form of Lamarckian inheritance

Finally, this brings me to human races. We all have different cultures, we all have different genetics and we all have different memes that we pass to the next generation. Differing human cultures arise from differing selective pressures in that ancestral environment. These differing selective pressures in the environment led to differing institutions between the modern-day races—which is why some populations are less ‘advanced’ (whatever that means) than others; because they didn’t have the right selective pressures to select for those strong institutions like what occurred in northerly climes. Each race and ethny have their own memes, their own ways of getting new cultural information to the next generation. This, in turn, leads to even more differing selection pressures betwixt the isolated human populations leading to even more distinct pheno and genotypic change amongst them.

Human culture is Lamarckian. Lamarck’s theory is perfect for the multi-generational transmission of cultural information. Along with memes (a form of Lamarckism), these two phenomena both shape human culture as well as behavior (along with genetics). Moreover, Lamarckism is pretty much an archaic form of the new and budding field epigenetics (which the jury is still out on that for me, I’m leaning towards no [see Steven Pinker for more information on this]). Lamarckism is the inheritance of acquired characteristics, the transformational pattern of evolution, and the concept of directed changes. These three variables perfectly describe human culture, describing it as change, and not evolution, which is the perfect way to put it. Differing human races also have different memes which permeate their culture and, given enough time, put new and different selective pressures on the population that is pushing a certain meme. This forces new differences between human populations on top of the already genetic differences from isolated evolution.

Lamarck was wrong to say that acquired traits during an organism’s lifetime carried over to the next generation, but his theory perfectly explains the transmission of human culture from generation to generation. If there is an inheritance of acquired traits, along with the transformational pattern of evolution and the concept of directed changes, therefor, human culture is Lamarckian.

All of these are true, so human culture is Lamarckian.