Friday, February 6, 2009

Evolving Tradition


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.)


Mitch Golden said...

You said today’s post would reply to my point last night, but having read this I think I should refine and clarify.

The reason sociobiology is claptrap and this stuff doesn’t belong in the Month of Darwin is that the discussion is missing the primary element needed to talk about Darwinian evolution: some reason to believe that anything the sociobiologists are talking about has a genetic basis.

Let’s take your own example of Wednesday: ethics. (The same argument applies to the behavior discussed in today’s post.)

A reasonably simple computer simulation shows that, in the case of the prisoner’s dilemma, the correct strategy to follow is tit-for-tat. (Start by cooperating, then do to the other guy whatever he did to you last time.) As a way of optimizing your outcome, if you play repeatedly, other strategies, even complex ones, do not do as well. This is a game-theoretic statement, having nothing to do with biology or human behavior.

Now, we observe that societies tend to have ethical frameworks roughly like tit-for-tat. We can advance three putative explanations:

1) This behavior is genetically coded. The reason people do this is that they’re “hard wired” to do it. Humans that were not so hard-wired were selected against, and suffered a reproductive disadvantage.

2) This behavior is a cultural construct. Cultures that don’t behave this way run into trouble and tend to be eclipsed by those that do.

3) This behavior is learned by the individual though early childhood interactions.

Now, the mere fact of a universal existence of the tit-for-tat behavior tells us nothing whatsoever about which of these three explanations (or some other) is right.

In fact, there is good reason to think that explanation 1 is actually unlikely. This wasn’t known to Darwin – or actually even until quite recently – but it appears that there are only a total of 25,000 or so genes in the human genome. (See e.g. It seems rather unlikely, then, that given all the things the genome needs to code (all the proteins needed to build the body) that it would have a specific one for this sort of ethical behavior, in order for Darwinian selection to act against it. No independent gene = no natural selection.

What of course this member of “the left” finds interesting here is they way this discussion blurs the usual positions of the two parts of the political spectrum. The most common view of the American Right is that the existence of these sorts of ethical behaviors is unique to human beings, and were brought into the world by God, via Judeo-Christianity. Here, for example, is a link to a recent debate at my alma mater, Princeton, at which no less a Right personage than Dinesh D’Sousa made just this point to Peter Singer.

I know that you don’t subscribe to this sort of facile characterization of views on the Conservative end to the political spectrum (though you do seem to lump the beliefs of “the left” into these simple buckets). Actually, the way I would look at it is that at least in this regard, it would be correct to say that “the left” has a perspective more closely approximating your view than those of the Right.

Todd Seavey said...

And at this point my real goal, which is breaking down the left-right barrier — but without the usual bland, pro-Establishment “moderation” that entails — starts to become more apparent.