Owen Jones, a professor specializing in law and behavioral biology at Arizona State University when I spoke to him several years ago, says that many human traditions seem less arbitrary — and seem to vary less from culture to culture — once you view them as functions of a common human nature. Traditions he explains, “are remarkably similar in several salient, non-random aspects. Patterns of jealousy, affection for children, attention to familial relationships, moral outrage at being cheated, and the like will capture a disproportionately large focus of cultural practices and traditions…think of marriage ceremonies as one modern epiphenomenon of evolved predispositions to mate…think of proscriptions against violence as a modern effort to reduce the manifestations of evolved aggressions.” So even the most carefully thought-out, new-fangled rules work with the raw material nature provided.
Tradition itself, rarely analyzed in scientific terms, can be thought of as an evolutionary sorting process, suggests anthropologist William H. Durham in his book Coevolution. It’s not a matter of “genes vs. culture,” nor “genes, then culture,” but of two parallel systems interacting and developing together down across the ages. True, traditions can be taken up or abandoned without their carriers necessarily having more offspring or dying, but since people tend to choose from the practices with which they are familiar, their menu of options will be dictated in part by which practices made people more likely to survive.
Most people choose from “thinkable” variations on the traditions they learned from their predecessors and contemporaries. Durham calls the slightly different tradition-bundles amongst which we choose allomemes (after Richard Dawkins’s term “meme” for a single catchy idea). Which of these bundles survive will depend partly on which ones appear to work, not simply on who lives long enough to have children — though that would obviously be one good criterion for judging which ones work. So tradition is partly a matter of choice, partly a matter of what made survival easier.
To give concrete examples: there is an obvious evolutionary reason that rules against murder and rules in favor of childbearing would tend to be propagated, while pro-murder and anti-childbearing codes would tend to be short-lived (as would religions that forbid all reproduction). The conservative idea that traditions have been vindicated by their survival over time makes some basic evolutionary sense, then — though some theorists, such as anarchist law professor Butler D. Shaffer, author of Calculated Chaos, caution that institutions begun for practical reasons, which were initially an aid to people’s survival, have a tendency to calcify into systems aimed first and foremost at their own preservation. Traditions themselves are competing to survive, you might say. Tradition, then, looks less arbitrary when viewed through the lens of evolution, but not perfect.
P.S. Speaking of traditionalism, I wonder whether the left — for consistency’s sake — will freak out over Obama’s new office of faith-based initiatives, as they did over Bush’s. I suspect not. (I, of course, say separate church and state and then dispose of both.)