Can There Be A Synthesis Between Cultural And Biological Evolution?

Language is a product of culture. Or is it? Which came first — language or culture? That’s like asking if the chicken or the egg came first. But cultural behavior has been documented in animals who do not have language systems, like gorillas who have intricate systems of processing plants. Richard Byrne summarized this behavior,

“Gorillas do not make tools in the wild… but several of their food-processing skills consist of highly structured, multi-stage sequences of bimanual action, hierarchically organized and flexibly adjusted to plants of highly specific local distribution and these abilities are near-ubiquitous among the local population. In terms of intricate complexity, gorilla plant-processing actually exceeds anything yet described in chimpanzees, unless tool-use per se is taken to be intrinsically more complex than non-tool-use. Gorilla, like Pan and Pongo, apparently sometimes relies for its survival on elaborate, deft and intricate feeding skills that are highly unlikely ever to be discovered by a solitary individual.”

This example is just one of many. It documents that culture can be created, persist and change without language. It does so through mimicking and augmentation. So it is generally assumed that culture came first, and language emerged as a system of formalized symbols, sounds, gestures used a means of communicating culture.

Why am I mentioning this at all? Well, we’ve seen, read and reviewed a couple of recent studies investigating cultural evolution and patterns in linguistic diversity. Most notably is the paper by Atkinson et al., where Simon and team showed that language evolves in bursts. Additionally, Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich showed that cultural things have functional and symbolic elements, the former of which is under naturally selective pressures.

Despite these advances, there are some who still think that culture and everything related with culture is nothing but noise. I don’t know where they get this idea from. Even John Herschel and Charles Darwin understood that extant ‘languages descended from a common ancestor,’ and, ‘the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.’ This observation was made before the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle and without a doubt helped lay the framework for the theory of evolution. The irony is that these vocal objections come from someone who specializes in studying material culture.

Anyways, I digress. John Whitfield, a science writer and blogger behind El Gentraso, has published a feature in the latest issue of the open access journal PLoS Biology where he summarizes “… the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution.” As anthropologists, we should appreciate the remarkable tangents between the dynamics of linguistic change and biological evolution. Because of these similarities, it is possible to use tools and frameworks used in studying biological evolution to study how language changes… even how cultures evolve. Furthermore, it is very possible that we may soon see a synthesis of theories, one that folds in both both biological and cultural evolution.

Whitfield summarizes research by Simon Kirby, which I didn’t know about but find fascinating.

“Kirby has asked subjects to learn a nonsense language and then teach it to new subjects, and so on. He found that the randomness quickly became regularized, as people unconsciously shaped words into something easier to remember and use, and devised rules to come up with words for things they hadn’t seen. Such a process may be at work in the spontaneous emergence over the past few decades of two sign languages—Nicaraguan Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. Each of these has moved rapidly from a system of gestures to a fully fledged language with conventions for grammar and sentence structure. Kirby plans to use them as a test bed for his ideas about how structure in language can rapidly emerge.”

In the piece, Whitfield also got to ask Mark Pagel‘s what his thoughts are with synthesizing ‘the two’. Pagel is an evolutionary biologist. He was one of the coauthors of the paper with Simon Greenhill and Atkinson. He’s also published an earlier paper with Atkinson titled, “Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history.” Pagel responded saying,

“Languages are extraordinarily like genomes. We think there could be very general laws of lexical evolution to rival those of genetic evolution.”

Alex Mesoudi agrees. He told Whitfield,

“If there’s a model system for cultural evolution, then probably the people working on language have got it, because there’s so much data… Cultural change and biological change share the same fundamental properties of variation, selection and inheritance.”

William Croft is a bit more cautious but also understands that,

“these are two different instantiations of a general theory of evolutionary change. These are early days, but such a theory will give us insights that you can’t get just by looking at one domain.”

So what do you think — is it possible to synthesize the two? Or do they exist as two inherently different entities that change under different conditions?

Oh, you may also be interested in this related video discussion between Paul Ehrlich and Carl Zimmer — where Ehrlich advocates that cultural evolution needs its own theoretical framework aside from evolutionary biology. Strange proposition, especially because he used a natural selection framework in his latest PNAS paper.

    Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q.D., Meade, A. (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449(7163), 717-720. DOI: 10.1038/nature06176
    Byrne, R.W. (2007). Culture in great apes: using intricate complexity in feeding skills to trace the evolutionary origin of human technical prowess. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), 577-585. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1996
    Whitfield, J. (2008). Across the Curious Parallel of Language and Species Evolution. PLoS Biology, 6(7), e186. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060186

8 thoughts on “Can There Be A Synthesis Between Cultural And Biological Evolution?

  1. I’m just an interested amateur, but it seems to me that though biological and cultural selection use the same basic machinery, it would be tough to make a reasonably comprehensive synthesis theory.

    It would almost have to be done species by species, because I doubt that gorilla culture changes at the same rate that Japanese macaque culture does (for instance); there are different environmental pressures. Then you get into Dugatkin and guppy culture; how do you measure the rate and impact of culture on fish, when compared to primates?

    With our current level of knowledge, it would exponentially multiply complexity to try and create a unified theory. Maybe some kind of correlation index or something like that could be worked out for interspecies comparisons of cultural development, but an over-arching Unified Theory of Evolution? I think we’ll be waiting on that for a while.

  2. I have written an essay related to the subject of the similarity of biological and cultural evolution at remotecentral. I’ve called it “Human Evolutiion on Trial – Culture” and you may be able to find it if you go to that blog. I’d be interested in any comments regarding improving it.

  3. I always love reading your posts, Kambiz. Endlessly thought-provoking!

    You bring up an interesting issue that has, as I understand anthropological theory, been in a deadlock for quite some time. The main opposition coming from those who claim that overstating the relationship between biological and cultural evolution is overly-scientific and borderline (if not completely) ethnocentric.

    Now, I’m not in a position to (over)state my own position, which at the moment is pretty flexible. But I am willing to entertain the idea that linguistic content and by extension cultural content can shift and change in ways that are ostensibly similar to the models of biological evolution. A quick example is the spread of memes, cultural traits that spread through culture in ways much similar to the transmission of genes.

    I’ve always been biologically inclined in that it is natural for me to view cultures as organisms, but although it seems I’m struct-func by nature, I’m interpretive and symbolic by training. Much of my time mentally is spent trying to find ways to reconcile these two (three) ways of thinking. It seems you’ve occupied yourself with a similar dilemma!

    Although, (not to make this too long-winded) Geertz even mentions the ways symbolic systems shift and change over time as if under selection pressures in his book “The Interpretation of Cultures”.

  4. Of course there can be a synthesis! I am, however, a bit biased.

    I would like to point out though, that no-one’s arguing that biological evolution is exactly like cultural evolution. What we’re saying is that cultures and languages evolve over time. What does that mean?

    Well, following Richard Lewontin, any system which has three attributes can be seen as evolving:

    1) variation: things in the system vary between themselves
    2) mutation: things in the system change over time
    3) heritability: things in the system replicate over time and give rise to entities that are like themselves.

    Now, evolutionary biologists have developed all sorts of really powerful methods (e.g. computational phylogenetics) to deal with the evolution of species. We can take these methods and apply them to these other evolutionary systems. And, as the above papers suggest, we can get some interesting results and we can test some important hypotheses.


  5. I just wanted to point out the fundamental flaw in the old addage “which came first, the chicken or the egg” as used after Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection became public knowledge. Since this is a scientific forum, we all accept the theory of evolution, right? Fossilized dinosaur eggs have been found in China, Mongolia, Argentina, India, and the Great Plains of North America mostly dating to the Cretaceous period (146 million to 65 million years ago), while the first domestic fowl are thought to have been bred in Polynesia or India from a mix of red and grey jungle fowl about 3000 B.C.E.. So, the next time someone repeats the tired old saying “Which came first …?” you can correct them.

  6. Can There be a Synthesis Between Cultural and Biological Evolution?
    Paul Ehrlich wrote an article for Seed Magazine (2008) in which he lamented the absence of a “Darwin” of Cultural Evolution. There now exists a published scientific theory that explains Cultural Evolution (Gehlsen, 2009 – find this book on Amazon).

    The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture demonstrates that cultural and biological evolution are distinct because they function using very different processes and mechanisms. This provides the ability to address some important issues.

    Culture existed before language just as eggs existed before chickens (or any birds). Language is just one of a virtually infinite number of aspects of culture. Language, economics, and technology (just to name a few) display similar “evolutionary” traits because they are all part of a matrix of cultural evolution.

    For Len:
    A synthesis of cultural and biological theory is pointless at this time because there is no general understanding of the theory of cultural evolution yet. On the other hand, a general theory that explains evolutionary systems already exists. Complexity Theory (also referred to as Chaos Theory) is a general explanation of evolving systems.

    For Adam:
    Cultures and biological entities are both evolving information systems, which is why they display so many superficial similarities. One way to understand the fundamental difference between biological and cultural evolution is to use the analogy of digital television. Genes are discrete bundles information (similar to digital transmission), but cultural information is transmitted continuously in all directions from multiple sources (similar to analogue transmission). There are no discrete bundles of cultural information, which is why the “meme” concept is a vacant idea.

    Cultures are structural, functional, interpretive, and symbolic all at once.

    The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture provides the basis for analyzing current issues in culture at:

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