Selectionist models of culture and science

As we have seen, there exists a general formula of selection that does not specify the replicators and interactors. Thus, provided that we can establish heritability for some cultural or moral entity, a selectionist schema could render its birth and fate intelligible. Culture, and science or epistemology, are the most important

46 The main general philosophical account of the consequences of evolutionary theory outside biology is Dennett (1995).

47 "Naturalism"qualifies here any research program that formulates its questions and constitutes its method along the sole lines of natural science methodology, and that does not accept any entity originating and subsisting for itself above the nature studied by those sciences.

fields of explananda for those theories. It was noticed long ago that one human characteristic, whether unique or just developed to a unique extreme, is culture; and the fact is that besides genetic inheritance there is cultural heredity: individuals learn, and they can transmit what they have learnt, which appears somehow replicated. So, given that the transmitted items are likely to be slightly modified each time they are reproduced, a selectionist evolutionary account of culture can be worked out. It faces at least two big problems: the first one is the relationship between genetic and cultural inheritance. The fact is that an entity may have great ''cultural'' reproductive success while its bearer leaves no offspring. So there is no necessary genetic basis for cultural traits, although if a cultural trait enhances the fitness of its bearer—think of any medical device that fights illness—then this enhances its own reproductive success. The other problem is the definition of this ''success,'' given that cultural transmission is not only vertical as in heredity, but also horizontal (e.g., toward non offspring), and this dimension is at least as important as the vertical one for the spreading of a trait.

Boyd and Richerson (1985) formulated a powerful set of models for cultural evolution. They did not make general assumptions concerning the genetic bases of cultural traits, but clearly cultural evolution, with the vertical and horizontal dimensions of transmission, implicates rather complicated relationships with genetic evolution. One of the main results of the models is that cultural evolution is far faster than genetic evolution. This strengthens, justifies, and explains our intuition that since long ago in human history, biological evolution has been negligible compared to cultural changes.

There is a large methodological issue here: is this selectionist theory of culture analogous to natural selection in biology, or is it a part of this theory? Boyd and Richerson are quite neutral; Dawkins's "memetic'' sounds like an analogon of evolutionary theory. Other authors (Lumsden and Wilson 1981) are more committed to a ''continuous'' view, which includes a criticizable assertion on the genetic basis of cultural traits.48

The part of culture which is technique is susceptible to a similar evolutionary approach, and it may be easier since the problem of adaptation has many parallels with technical evolution (Basalla 1988). If we consider technique (for example, photographic cameras since their origin), it is even possible to draw an evolutionary tree similar to a branch of the Tree of Life, with extinctions, radiations, privileged lines of evolution, and so forth. And concerning mechanism, we have variation provided by changing fabrication technologies, and we have a kind of

48 A severe critique is to be found in Maynard-Smith (1996). A general evaluation of the possibilities offered to selectionist theories of culture in a quite sympathetic perspective is given by Kitcher (2003b).

process of selection since the more robust or efficient objects are more likely to be copied. Hence, it should be possible to define a property analogous to fitness. It is plausible that this field of the study of culture will be most likely to receive satisfactory evolutionary treatment.

Science is a limited area of culture subject to a specific constraint (namely, its aim to represent the world in some way). The foundationalist program for the philosophy of science, in quest for a priori rules and guarantee for scientific inquiry, declined in the 1960s following extensive critiques and philosophers after Quine turned to a naturalized epistemology, e.g., an epistemology situated at the same empirical level as the sciences, not considering them from an a priori point of view. In so far as they use selection, which presupposes no trend among the selected entities toward any end, evolutionary models of science have the advantage that they do not presuppose any shared rationality or ideal from the scientists and even no special competence to recognize what is true. It is a fact that no definitive formulation of the goal of science, of what is ''objective truth'' and the criteria to recognize it, has ever been enunciated; thus, we cannot presuppose that all actors are oriented toward the same goal. A selectionist process is able to produce theories with the tightest match to the real world, whenever theories bear any consequences in practical life (those consequences will be the effects upon which selection acts) (Ruse 1986). At the price of giving up the idea that science aims at eternal and ideal truth (Giere 2001), evolutionary epistemology with a strong selectionist commitment, as originally formulated by Campbell and variously advocated by Giere or Hull (1988),49 gives a clear picture of the ''process of science'' that conciliates the lack of empirically attested ''aim'' with the cumulative improvement of the fit between theories, data and applications.

However, the nature of replicators and interactors in this process is a confused issue: contents (and how to define them), scientists, etc.—although the clearest account of this perspective is Hull's. So, one has to prove that truth of theories defines a kind of reproductive advantage, which is not obvious if the entities at issue are human beings.50 Giere's verdict (1990) is that evolutionary epistemology is for the moment like Darwinism before the synthesis with genetics, hence it lacks a theory of the mechanisms providing heredity and variation

49 Evolutionary epistemology was not born with Campbell; in fact philosophers like Toulmin elaborated a so-called ''evolutionary epistemology''. I consider only recent theories with their massive use of selectionist models.

50 Kenneth Waters (1990) provided a powerful critique of this Darwinian analogy concerning the growth of science, to the extent that it leaves apart intellectual powers of scientists as reflexive agents of selection of fittest contents.

across individuals. However, such an account might be now provided by cognitive sciences.

Like a selectionist theory of culture that is neutral regarding the biological foundations of cultural traits, evolutionary epistemology is not directly committed to any psychological theory of the acquisition of knowledge. There are some evolutionary theories, using selectionist models, that address this point, but this is "evolutionary epistemology'' in another sense: "Evolutionary epistemology of mechanisms'' (ETM) distinguished by Bradie (1984) from "Evolutionary epistemology of theories'' (ETT) of science as a process. They could be complementary (as in Campbell's Selection Theory (1990)), but they have no logical connection. In general, ETM can nevertheless be understood at an ontogenetical level, or at a phylogenetic level.

Now since this last ETM research program belongs to an evolutionary representation of mind within nature, in order to figure out the philosophical issues at stake, here I now turn to the other strategy, which builds a continuous evolutionary framework for solving questions concerning the nature of man.

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