Kim Sterelny's book The Pleistocene social contract provides an exceptionally well-informed and credible narrative explanation of the origins of inequality and hierarchy. In this essay review, we reflect on the role of rational choice theory in Sterelny's project, before turning to Sterelny's reasons for doubting the importance of cultural group selection. In the final section, we compare Sterelny's big picture with an alternative from David Wengrow and David Graeber.
Concepts from cultural attractor theory are now used in domains far from their original home in anthropology and cultural evolution. Yet these concepts have not been consistently characterised. I here distinguish four ways in which the cultural attractor concept has been used and identify three kinds of factors of attraction typically appealed to. Clarifying these explanatory concepts identifies problems and ambiguities in the work of cultural epidemiologists and commentators alike.
Kevin Laland and colleagues have put forward a number of arguments motivating an extended evolutionary synthesis. Here I examine Laland et al.'s central concept of reciprocal causation. Reciprocal causation features in many arguments supporting an expanded evolutionary framework, yet few of these arguments are clearly delineated. Here I clarify the concept and make explicit three arguments in which it features. I identify where skeptics can—and are—pushing back against these arguments, and highlight what I see as the empirical, explanatory, and methodological (...) issues at stake. (shrink)
In their article, Thom Scott‐Phillips, Stefaan Blancke, and Christophe Heintz do a commendable job summarizing the position and misunderstandings of “cultural attraction theory” (CAT). However, they do not address a longstanding problem for the CAT framework; that while it has an encompassing theory and some well‐worked out case studies, it lacks tools for generating models or empirical hypotheses of intermediate generality. I suggest that what the authors diagnose as misunderstandings are instead superficial interpretive errors, resulting from researchers who have attempted (...) to extract generalizable hypotheses from CAT and bring them into contact with the analytical and inferential models of contemporary cultural evolutionary research. (shrink)
Cumulative cultural evolution is often claimed to be distinctive of human culture. Such claims are typically supported with examples of complex and historically late-appearing technologies. Yet by taking these as paradigm cases, researchers unhelpfully lump together different ways that culture accumulates. This article has two aims: (a) to distinguish four types of cultural accumulation: adaptiveness, complexity, efficiency, and disparity and (b) to highlight the epistemic implications of taking complex hominin technologies as paradigmatic instances of cumulative culture. Addressing these issues both (...) clarifies the cumulative culture concept and demonstrates the importance of further cumulative culture research into non-human animals and ancestral hominins. (shrink)
Cultural attractor theory (CAT) is a highly visible and audacious approach to studying human cultural evolution. However, the explanatory aims and some central explanatory concepts of CAT remain unclear. Here I remedy these problems. I provide a reconstruction of CAT that recasts it as a theory of forces. I then demonstrate how this reinterpretation of CAT has the resources to generate both cultural distribution and evolvability explanations. I conclude by examining the potential benefits and drawbacks of this reconstruction.
In a recent article, Fridland characterises a central capacity of skill users, an aspect she calls ‘control’. Control, according to Fridland, is evidenced in the way in which skill users are able to marshal a variety of mental and bodily resources in order to keep skill deployment operating fluidly and appropriately. According to Fridland, two prevalent contemporary accounts of skill—Stanley & Krakauer’s and Hubert Dreyfus’s —fail to account for the features of control, and do so necessarily. While I agree with (...) Fridland that features of control represent desiderata for a satisfactory characterisation of the capacity of skills to respond to perturbations, I argue that her account is limited in two ways; first it is applicable only to a particular class of skills I call motor skills, leaving other classes of skills unaccounted for; second, she employs a problematic distinction that rules out the automatic and pre-reflective use of discursive, propositional cues in skill deployment. I put forward a critical elaboration of Fridland’s account based on two more general characteristic features of skills I call opportunistic robustness and normative sensitivity. I suggest that these features avoid the difficulties isolated, while preserving the substance of Fridland’s account of control. (shrink)
Morin has written a rich and valuable book. Its main aim is to isolate the factors involved in maintaining behavioural lineages over time, and to understand how these factors might interact. In doing so, it takes issue with the abstract and idealised models and arguments of dual-inheritance theorists, which are alleged in this account to rely on an overly simplistic notion of imitative learning. Morin’s book is full of ethnographic, anthropological, and psychological research, and there is much to commend in (...) it. However, Morin’s arguments against the dual-inheritance theorists are less convincing when put under scrutiny, and his positive picture which includes appeals to ostensive communication, intrinsic appeal and cultural attraction has some difficulties. I argue that when we contrast dual-inheritance theorists and Morin, we find that there may be fewer differences and greater commonalities than Morin’s book might suggest. (shrink)
The social sciences often explain behavioral differences by appealing to membership in distinct cultural groups. This work uses the concepts of “cultures” and “cultural groups” like any other demographic category (e.g. “gender”, “socioeconomic status”). I call these joint conceptualizations of “cultures” and “cultural groups” _demographic cultures_. Such demographic cultures have long been subject to scrutiny. Here I isolate and respond to a set of arguments I call _demographic skepticism_. This skeptical position denies that the demographic cultures concept can support metaphysically (...) plausible and empirically principled research. I argue against the skeptic, showing that their position relies on a questionable alignment between the demographic cultures concept and what I call the _folk anthropological model_. While the commitments of that model are problematic—they are not necessary for comparative work in the social sciences. In addition to clarifying skeptical arguments, then, I provide four recommendations for the comparative social scientist that allow them to avoid demographic skepticism. (shrink)
Cultural disparity—the variation across cultural traits such as knowledge, skill, and belief—is a complex phenomenon, studied by a number of researchers with an expanding empirical toolkit. While there is a growing consensus as to the processes that generate cultural variation and change, general explanatory frameworks require additional tools for identifying, organising, and relating the complex causes that underpin the production of cultural disparity. Here I develop a case study in the cognitive science of religion, and demonstrate how concepts and distinctions (...) drawn from work on contrastive explanation and manipulationist accounts of causation provide such tools for distinguishing explanatory levels, organising causal narratives, and accounting for cross-cultural patterns. (shrink)
The authors deploy an epistemic framework to represent culture and model the acquisition of cultural behavior. Yet, the framing inherits familiar problems with explaining the acquisition of norms. Such problems are conspicuous with regard to human societies where norms are ubiquitous. This creates a new difficulty for the authors in explaining change to mutually exclusive organizational structures of human life.
Recent work has established a framework for explaining the origin of cognitive novelties—qualitatively distinct cognitive traits—in human beings. This niche construction approach argues that humans engineer epistemic environments in ways that facilitate the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of such novelties. I here argue that attention to the organized relations between content-carrying informational vehicles, or informational form, is key to a valuable explanatory strategy within this project, what I call structural-causal explanations. Drawing on recent work from Cecilia Heyes, and developing a (...) case study around a novel mathematical capacity, I demonstrate how structural-causal explanations can contribute to the niche construction approach by underwriting the application of explanatory tools and generating new empirical targets. (shrink)
In Denis Walsh’s Organisms, Agency, and Evolution, he argues that new developments in the science of biology motivate a radical change to our metaphysical picture of life: what he calls ‘Situated Darwinism’. The central claim is that we should take the biological world to be at base about organisms, and organisms in a fundamentally teleological sense. We critically examine Walsh’s arguments and suggest further developments.
We argue that general intelligence, as presented in the target article, generates multiple distinct and non-equivalent characterisations. Clarifying this central concept is necessary for assessing Burkart et al.’s proposal that the cultural intelligence hypothesis is the best explanation for the evolution of general intelligence. We assess this claim by considering two characterisations of general intelligence presented in the article.
Synthesising arguments motivate changes to the conceptual tools, theoretical structure, and evaluatory framework employed in a given scientific domain. Recently, a broad coalition of researchers has put forward a synthesising argument in favour of an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (‘EES’). Often this synthesising argument is evaluated using a virtue-based approach, which construes the EES as a wholesale alternative to prevailing practice. Here I argue this virtue-based approach is not fit for purpose. Taking the central concept of niche construction as a case (...) study, I show that an agenda-based approach better captures the pragmatic and epistemological goals of the EES synthesising argument and diagnoses areas of empirical disagreement with prevailing practice. (shrink)
The bifocal stance theory posits two stances – the ritual and the instrumental – each a learning strategy with different fidelity outcomes. These differences in turn have long-term consequences for cultural stability. Yet we suggest the key concept of “fidelity” is insufficiently explicated. Pointing to counterexamples and gaps in the theory, we suggest that explicating “fidelity” reveals the stances to be heuristic explanatory strategies: first-pass explanatory glosses of learning and its consequences, not descriptions of the inner machinery of agents.
Researchers in the life sciences often make uniqueness attributions; about branching events generating new species, the developmental processes generating novel traits and the distinctive cultural selection pressures faced by hominins. Yet since uniqueness implies non-recurrence, such attributions come freighted with epistemic consequences. Drawing on the work of Aviezer Tucker, we show that a common reaction to uniqueness attributions is pessimism: both about the strength of candidate explanations as well as the ability to even generate such explanations. Looking at two case (...) studies—elephant trunks and human teaching—we develop a more optimistic account. As we argue, uniqueness attributions are revisable claims about the availability of several different kinds of comparators. Yet even as researchers investigate the availability of such comparators, they are able to mobilize complex sets of empirical and theoretical tools. Rather than hindering scientific investigation, then, we argue that uniqueness attributions often spur the generation of a range of epistemic goods. (shrink)