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I was surprised by some of your recent comments on Twitter, which struck me as decidedly backward looking.

Author profile picture David Sloan Wilson
Recipient profile picture Massimo Pigliucci
7 June
Dear Massimo Pigliucci,
We go way back and share a love of philosophy in addition to biology. I was proud to be included in the “Altenberg 16” workshop that you organized to explore the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, a term that you coined. I have always regarded you as one of the most forward looking evolutionary thinkers. I was therefore surprised by some of your recent comments on Twitter, which struck me as decidedly backward looking. The topic was ancient Greek history. I commented that it could benefit from a cultural multilevel selection perspective. Your response—at least as I took it—was that you didn’t see how such an analysis would add to traditional scholarship on the topic. You also noted that the study of genetic evolution is hard and the study of human cultural evolution is harder still. You regarded much of the work on human cultural evolution as speculative adaptationist “just-so” story telling. Really, Massimo! The study of humanity from an evolutionary perspective—including but not restricted to cultural evolution—lags behind the study of genetic evolution by nearly a century. This is not because the study of our species is more difficult—in many ways it is easier—but for more complicated and nuanced reasons. It started to get back on track during the closing decades of the 20th century and now is in full swing. To call the entire field of inquiry exceptionally difficult, unduly speculative, and unduly adaptationist compared to other fields of inquiry is both mistaken and unhelpful. Let’s begin with the concept of difficulty. The reason that Darwin’s theory was so compelling from the beginning is because it made sense of mountains of information about the natural history of plants and animals that already existed but had yet to be organized by a general theoretical framework. That is why Thomas Huxley could say “How stupid of me not to have thought of that!” upon his first encounter with the theory. Based on your comments, I don’t think you sufficiently appreciate how much the study of humanity is in a pre-Darwinian “natural history” stage—mountains of information that need to be organized by the right theoretical framework. This is the theme of my newest book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. The study of human history is a sterling example. The very idea of a unifying theoretical framework and the need for quantification is foreign to most historians and inimical to some. This is why the efforts of evolutionary historians, who employ quantitative methods to test evolution-informed hypotheses, are so important. Once seen from the right perspective, history provides a fossil record of human cultural evolution that puts the biological fossil record to shame! Do you really think that ancient Greek history would not benefit from such an analysis? On the question of whether the study of human cultural evolution is unduly speculative and adaptationist, consider evolutionary religious studies, which I helped to pioneer at the turn of the 21st century. The central puzzle of religion is that it seems so non-utilitarian. Why do people believe in supernatural agents who command them to do such costly things, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to his God? There are two broad potential answers to this question. First, religious beliefs and practices might be just as non-utilitarian as they seem, in which case some sort of non-utilitarian explanation is required (which need not be evolutionary). Second, despite appearances, religious beliefs and practices might have “secular utility” after all, as Emile Durkheim put it. His utilitarian definition of religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Hence, adaptation vs. byproduct explanations have always been at the core of traditional religious studies but a century of scholarship resulted only in mountains of information and little theoretical integration. Durkheim’s tradition of group-level functionalism peaked in the mid-20thcentury and was abandoned in part because it was too axiomatic, as if all features of human society must be interpreted as good for the group. Against this background, the main contribution of evolutionary religious studies was to introduce the same hypothesis-testing toolkit developed for the study of genetic evolution. Culturally evolved features of religion might or might not be adaptive. If adaptive, they might be a product of between-group selection, within-group selection, or cultural parasites harmful to both individuals and groups. If not adaptive, they might be byproducts of adaptations, adaptations to past environments mismatched to current environments, or products of drift. These six major hypotheses serve for the study of culturally evolved religious traits as well as for genetically evolved traits. Each trait must be studied on a case-by-case basis, letting the chips fall where they may. As it turns out, the chips largely (not entirely) favor a group-level functional account of religion. This is also the general point of my letter. The entire conceptual toolkit that has proven itself for the study of genetic evolution is equally relevant to the study of human cultural evolution. This enterprise is not more difficult than the study of genetic evolution and in many respects it can be easier. The scientists involved are not more prone to speculation or adaptationist explanations than other evolutionary scientists. Any period of history, such as the ancient Greek period, can benefit from going beyond a “natural history” stage to one in which the mountains of information are organized by a unified theoretical framework. Above all, we need “Darwin’s toolkit” to manage cultural evolution in the present so that it can be aligned with our normative goals. This is the forward-looking approach that I would expect the person who coined the term “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” to endorse! Sincerely,

David Sloan Wilson

Author profile picture David Sloan Wilson
7 June
Dear David Sloan Wilson,

Sorry to disappoint your expectations, but just because we are both proponents of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis it does not follow that we are going to see eye-to-eye on all issues. However, let me be clear that my skepticism does not extend to the general idea that historical research can be done quantitatively, or that a theoretical framework may be useful. In both cases, the proof is in the pudding.

Rather, I am skeptical of the specific notion that Darwinian ideas may be helpful in understanding, say, what happened during the Peloponnesian War. That is for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because: (i) It is difficult to test adaptive hypotheses about past selective pressures, as we know from biology (see the famous Gould and Lewontin’s “spandrels” paper); (ii) It isn’t even clear what “adaptive” means in that historical context (for individuals? For Groups? How coherent do such groups need to be? How do we define and rigorously measure cultural inheritance? What is the pertinent measure of fitness?); (iii) A straightforward Darwinian approach does not seem to take into sufficient account the vagaries of human volition (did Alcibiades did what he did because of… what, exactly?).

I assure you that I have followed the evolving literature on cultural evolution, but my take on it is quite different from yours. It’s a fascinating field, but it still has to prove its worth. Take, for instance, the evolution of human language. A recent book on cultural evolution — Kevin Laland’s excellent Darwin’s Unfinished Synthesis — lists a large number of competing hypotheses, and cannot really convincingly settle on one (though Kevin, of course, has his favorite!). That’s because, contra what you write, it is indeed exceedingly difficult to rigorously test hypotheses about human culture.

I noticed that in your letter you did not at all address my opening question: what, exactly, would a multi-level selection approach contribute beyond current scholarship on the Peloponnesian War? Could you perhaps elaborate a bit in your next letter?

Instead, you discuss your own work on the evolution of religion. Which I’m aware of, and find interesting but not quite as convincing as you do. Again, let’s move away from generics: could you provide me with specific examples of religious traits you find adaptive and describe exactly why and how you arrived at that conclusion?

More broadly, I am skeptical (which doesn’t mean I can’t be persuaded!) of “universalizing” scientific theories. “Darwinism” has obviously worked very well in biology. And yes, culture is an outgrowth of biology. But that doesn’t mean that culture can be straightforwardly treated as yet another manifestation of human biology. It’s far more complicated than that.

Consider another (in my opinion) misuse of the Darwinian approach: physicist Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmic natural selection. With all due respect to Smolin, his idea is not just speculative, but relies on exceedingly vague notions of (cosmic) inheritance and (cosmic) selection. It may still be true or useful, but — again — the crucial test is in the (so far underwhelming) results.

You say, correctly, that Darwin suddenly “made sense” of a lot of information that biologists had laying around. But that’s only part of the story, as you know. To begin with, Darwin actually collected a wealth of new information during his voyages and through his network of friends. Moreover, he conducted a number of experiments to test specific hypotheses. Most importantly, he wrote extensively in On the Origin of Species about what sort of empirical data would pose a problem for his theory. I honestly don’t think the cultural evolution crowd has done anything close to that, yet.

Part of the problem, as Carol Cleland has argued in a number of papers, is that historical sciences are quite different from empirical ones. And evolutionary biology is both! For instance, we are often interested in unique historical events, from the extinction of the dinosaurs to the collapse of the Roman empire. The kind of work needed to elucidate causality in those cases is different from, say, the sort of experimental work (which I have done) that allows us to measure natural selection and test hypotheses about adaptedness in the field or the lab.

When you say that the idea of quantification his “foreign” to classical historians I think you are being rather uncharitable to that class of scholars. Plenty of historical research uses quantitative methods, but quantitative methods are not synonymous with the kind of natural science biologists do; nor certainly with the specific use of multi-level selection theory. And I would remind you that even biologists (John Endler, for instance) admit that studying natural selection is exceedingly difficult even under the best circumstances (i.e., when we have direct access to multiple large populations in the field, as well as to measurements of their environment), no matter what framework one picks.

So let me ask you again to get down to the details, rather than stay on the generics. Say we are interested in studying the Peloponnesian War — which is how this conversation began. Can you give me an idea of: (a) Specifically how would you deploy multi-level selection theory in that case? (b) Which “groups” would you consider in your analyses? (Individual city-states, leagues of states, or what? And would the Persian and Macedonian empires count as groups as well?) (c) What selective forces were acting, and how do we know about them? (d) What role, if any, was played by individual personalities, such as those of Alcibiades, Nicias, Pericles, Cleon, Demosthenes, Lysander, and so forth?


Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci
7 June
Dear Massimo Pigliucci,

I know that you want me to get down to nitty-gritty details—a challenge that I think I can meet—but your letter raises a host of general issues that must also be addressed. First, for our correspondence to make sense to others, it is important to clarify the meaning of key words. You use words such as Darwinian (“I am skeptical that the specific notion of Darwinian ideas…”) and biology (“But that doesn’t mean that culture can be straightforwardly treated as yet another manifestation of human biology…”) as if they have widely accepted meanings, when this is far from the case. Most important words have multiple meanings, what is called “Darwinian” is often imposed upon the poor man (especially the term Social Darwinism), and the field of evolutionary science has gone far beyond Darwin in any case. In your next letter, please clarify what you mean by these two key words.

What I mean by evolution is any process that has the three ingredients of variation, selection (=differential survival and reproduction), and replication (=heredity). The primary outcome of an evolutionary process is that the evolving entities become adapted to their environments—not always and in every case, but to an extent that must be determined on a trait-by-trait basis. In a chapter of my new book titled “Darwin’s Toolkit”, I draw upon Niko Tinbergen, who (as you know) pioneered the study of animal behavior during the mid-20th century. At that time, it was not obvious that a behavioral trait such as aggression can evolve in the same way as an anatomical trait such as a deer’s antlers. It was Tinbergen’s achievement (along with others such as Konrad Lorenz and Carl von Frisch, with whom he shared the Nobel prize in 1973) to establish that the study of behavior is a branch of biology, which is taken for granted today.

In the process, Tinbergen identified four questions that must be addressed for any product of evolution, concerning their: 1) function (if any); 2) history; 3) mechanism; and 4) development. For example, the human hand: 1) has the function of manipulating objects; 2) evolved within the vertebrate lineage and can be anatomically traced to the fins of fish; 3) consists of bones, muscles, nerves, tendons, and skin put together in just the right way; and 4) begins to appear during the fifth week of gestation. For me, a fully rounded evolutionary approach involves asking Tinbergen’s four questions for all products of evolution, not just genetic evolution. Other processes of evolution, with different inheritance mechanisms, include epigenetic evolution, the adaptive component of the immune system, open-ended individual learning, forms of transgenerational social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human. Tinbergen's "four questions" approach can even be applied to evolutionary algorithms on computers! Although I am guilty of using Darwin’s name in the chapter title, I am dealing with modern evolutionary science and how to extend it, which need not be tied narrowly to what Darwin thought.

Something else I find problematic in your letter is your invocation of difficulty, which isn't useful without also assessing the benefits. It is the benefit/cost ratio that matters, not just the cost! Robert Boyd, a pioneer in the study of cultural evolution, is fond of saying that our knowledge of cultural inheritance mechanisms is comparable to our knowledge of genetics before Mendel. For Boyd, this is a reason to invest effort because the topic is so important and the benefits are likely to be so large. For you, stressing only the difficulty, it’s as if there is no point in trying.

Still more that needs to be established for our conversation to be productive, for ourselves and our readers, is that the study of any evolutionary process includes but is not restricted to Tinbergen’s history question. You rightly note that testing hypotheses about what happened in the past can be difficult, for genetic evolution no less than cultural evolution. But cultural evolution (and other non-genetic evolutionary processes) can also be studied in the present, just like genetic evolution. Indeed, the most important application is to guide our future cultural evolution, which is the main point of my new book. Hence, let’s not dwell too much on the difficulties of testing hypotheses about history.

Finally, when you compare the study of human cultural evolution to Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmic natural selection, I strenuously object! Do you really, truly think that they are comparable in their degree of speculation? It won’t do to cite a single example, such as the evolution of human language. That would be like me branding all of evolutionary biology as speculative, citing the examples of the origin of life or the origin of the genus Homo!

In conclusion, I can’t help but observe that the overall rhetorical impact of your letter is to dampen enthusiasm and cast doubt on the legitimacy of studying human cultural evolution. This might not be what you intended, but if you stress that anything is really hard and really speculative while remaining silent about the benefits, what else is a reader to conclude? A big difference in our perspectives, or at least in the rhetorical impact of what we write, is that I see huge benefits in expanding the study of evolution beyond genetic evolution. Indeed, I believe that our future welfare depends upon it.

In my next letter, I promise to get down to the nitty-gritty details, first for the study of religion, where I can draw upon my own work, and then for the study of human history, where I will draw upon the work of others.

With respect,

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson
7 June
Dear David Sloan Wilson,

Yes, important words do have multiple meanings, but when I say “Darwinian” I mean exactly what you say: a process that works by a combination of heritable variation and differential reproduction. So to go back to what started this exchange, the Peloponnesian War, I ask you again: (i) what entities are reproducing themselves? What is the fitness criterion? What is the mechanism of inheritance? I know you’d prefer to talk about the evolution of religion, but you’ve already written about it, and that wasn’t really the challenge. Can you please articulate in some detail how a multi-level selection perspective would improve our understanding of ancient Greek history?

I am, of course, aware of Tinbergen’s famous four questions. For any product of evolution we can always ask: (i) its function; (ii) its history; (iii) the mechanisms underlying it; and (iv) its development. Or we could use Aristotle’s framework and ask what are the “causes” of any phenomenon: (a) material; (b) formal; (c) efficient; and (d) final. Whatever framework you wish to use, you still owe me an account of how that framework applies to the case of the Peloponnesian War. I don’t necessarily think this is impossible or unproductive, but you are the one who made the claim during our initial Twitter exchange, so it seems to me that you are the one with at least the initial burden of proof. Even proof of concept.

You accuse me of simply invoking difficulties with, without assessing the benefits of, a multi-level selection approach to human history. I think that’s a bit unfair. First of all, criticism is constructive in science even in cases in which one does not propose an alternative. Consider for instance the current debate in fundamental physics about the chronic lack of progress in string theory. Critics are doing a valuable job there, regardless of whether or not they come up with alternatives. Among other things, they may save a lot of graduates students from potentially wasting their careers on an unproductive pursuit. Or they may save taxpayers a lot of dollars in research money that could more profitably be allocated to other scientific endeavors.

Second, I am still unconvinced about the alleged benefits of multi-level selection theory when applied to human history. That is precisely what we are discussing, no? I think mine is a perfectly reasonable position to hold, and, again, I remind you that you are the one making the positive claim, so you need to make the case.

You seem to think that I have a problem with the whole notion of studying cultural evolution, which is why you mention, for instance, Robert Boyd. But I don’t, really. I take issue with certain specific approaches to the study of cultural evolution, and eagerly await for the field to move beyond its pre-Mendelian stage, as you and Boyd put it.

I never said, nor implied, that there is no point in trying to study cultural evolution. On the contrary, for instance I have greatly enjoyed Laland’s book, mentioned in my previous letter. My position is simply that if you want to try something, and moreover claim that it’s working, then I’d like to see some convincing results. So far, you’ve kept on the generics, and I really hope you’ll get to the nitty gritty details with your next letter. (Again, please, on the specific subject we are allegedly discussing, not others that may or may not fit the same mold.)

You strenuously objected to my invoking Lee Smolin’s concept of cosmic natural selection as an example of misguided application of ideas rooted in biology. But you did not really provide any good reason for your objection. My point was that Smolin’s notion is not just speculative, but based on a misapplication of Darwinian concepts. I don’t know where cultural evolution stands at the moment: it may lie somewhere between misapplication and speculation, and I’d like you to help me move away from either or both impressions. In the same paragraph you say that it’s somehow unfair of me to point to a single example (language) as being emblematic of the whole field. Perhaps, though language is a big target, and we surely have lots of data available. So why has a multi-level selection theory not brought anything new to the table in that particular respect?

I’m also very much concerned by your assumption that studying cultural evolution is important because it will allow us to direct future cultural evolution. That kind of talk makes me nervous for a number of reasons. First, because even a solid understanding of past events isn’t usually a reliable guide to future ones, when it comes to the vagaries of humanity. Just look at the highly problematic status of economic forecasts. Second, and more ominously, because I’m not clear what you mean by “guide our future.” Who is going to make decisions about future cultural evolution, and on what bases? I’m sure you are well aware of the blunder of eugenics, which interestingly took place precisely immediately after our understanding of genetic evolution came out of its “pre-Mendelian phase.” You don’t foresee similar risks concerning guided cultural evolution, however that may actually be implemented?

Finally, you say that the overall rhetorical impact of my letter is to “dampen enthusiasms.” Good! Because sometimes over-enthusiastic scientists go down rabbit holes. Besides, I really think you overestimate my influence by implying that my opinions on the matter are actually going to have a measurable impact on the field. Unlike me, you see “huge benefits” in expanding the study of evolution beyond genetics. Assuming that such expansion can be coherently carried out (which is still open to question), could you give me a few examples of such huge benefits?


Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci
7 June
Dear Massimo Pigliucci,

At your request, I will focus this letter on multilevel selection (MLS) theory and its relevance to both human history and current affairs. I will say as much as I can about ancient Greek history, but please understand that I was calling for its study from a MLS perspective! I am not an expert and don’t pretend to be. When I focus on a given topic from a MLS perspective, such as religion or economics, I do enough work to publish in the peer-reviewed literature. This is why I keep referring to colleagues such as Peter Turchin on the topic of history, who share my MLS perspective and have done the work—albeit not yet for ancient Greek history.

As you know, MLS theory begins with a biological fact of life: Behaviors that are oriented toward the welfare of others or one’s group as a whole (prosociality) usually require time, energy, and risk on the part of individuals. This makes prosocial behaviors selectively disadvantageous, compared to more self-serving behaviors, in the groups where the social interactions are taking place. To find the evolutionary advantage of prosociality, it is usually necessary to go up in scale: Groups of individuals who behave prosocially toward each other robustly outcompete groups whose members can’t cohere.

All theories of social evolution reflect this biological fact of life—even theories that historically were developed as alternatives to group selection. Their differences are matters of perspective rather than the invocation of different causal processes, which (as you know) is called “equivalence” in the peer-reviewed literature. There is still widespread confusion on this point among the general public, where people think that MLS theory has been rejected in favor of kin selection, selfish genes, reciprocity, and all that. My book Does Altruism Exist? expands upon this point.

The relative strength of within- vs. between-group selection is not static but can itself evolve. The evolution of our species represents such a shift. Our distant ancestors became exceptionally good at suppressing disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups so that between-group selection became the primary evolutionary force, favoring teamwork in all its forms. That’s what our moral psychology is all about. The capacity to learn from each other and to transmit learned information across generations is itself a form of teamwork. Since a learned social behavior is subject to the same tradeoffs as a genetically coded behavior, cultural evolution is a multi-level process, no less than genetic evolution.

Against this background, human history can be seen as a process of cultural MLS resulting in a net increase in the scale of society, with many reversals along the way. This is how Turchin interprets the rise and fall of empires in War and Peace and War, still more generally in Ultrasociety, and for American History in Ages of Discord.

Cultural MLS also takes place in the present, which is why it becomes an important tool for formulating policy. It does a great job of explaining why small groups function well or poorly in a modern context. They function well when they are structured to prevent disruptive self-serving behaviors and poorly otherwise. If this strikes you as obvious, then there are myriad dysfunctional groups in all walks of life to prove you wrong. At the national scale, books such as Why Nations Fail and The Spirit Level show a strong relationship between inclusiveness and effectiveness as a corporate unit—and the authors of these books are themselves adopting a cultural evolutionary perspective.

My interest in economics —to which I have contributed at the peer-reviewed level—actually led to my dabbling in ancient Greek history. While trying to understand the nature of money, I encountered a book titled Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, by a classics scholar named Richard Seaford. The thesis of Seaford’s book is that the revolution in thought associated with the ancient Greeks can be attributed in large part to the origin of currency. Prior to coinage, social exchange took place primarily not by barter but by a web of gift-giving and ritual sacrifices at temples, which functioned as a kind of a bank for accumulating and distributing resources. Money changed all that, resulting in more widespread cooperation but also more inequality through hoarding and lending with interest—the same blessing and curse associated with money today.

Space does not permit me to describe how Seaford connects the origin of coinage with the revolution in thought associated with the ancient Greeks. You might already be familiar with Seaford’s work and in a better position to comment on it than I. But I hope I have explained how I was led to his book by an interest in MLS theory and how a more formal application of MLS theory might add value to current historical knowledge.

Returning to a more general plane, you ask questions such as “What entities are reproducing themselves?”, “What is the fitness criterion?”, and “What is the mechanism of inheritance?” The methodology for answering these questions is broadly similar for genetic and cultural evolution, especially when we consider messy biological cases such as horizontal gene transfer in bacteria, selfish genetic elements that spread at the expense of the organisms that they inhabit, and microbiomes as units of selection. Sometimes the answers for cultural evolution can be quite straightforward. People are often crystal clear about how they define their social groups and who falls inside and outside their moral circles. If you spent a frigid arctic night in an igloo, you wouldn’t puzzle over its survival value. Check out my work with Yasha Hartberg on sacred texts as cultural inheritance mechanisms.

Finally, you ask “who is going to make decisions about future cultural evolution, and on what bases?” That question needs to be asked for any policy decision informed by any theoretical framework. It will be the focus of my next letter.

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson
7 June
Dear David Sloan Wilson,

Thanks for your latest letter, though I’m increasingly confused on what you mean by “selection,” “group,” and other terms in evolutionary biology that need to be clarified if we are to apply them to cultural evolution.

But let us proceed in order. You keep bringing up Peter Turchin’s work, so let’s talk about it. When I checked Peter’s website, it lists exactly one paper, published in 2011 in Structure and Dynamics, that explicitly mentions multi-level selection theory. It’s an interesting paper in many respects, but it also represents a good example of the failure (or, better, the irrelevance) of the approach.

First off, Peter spends a lot of time writing about historical facts, trends, and potential causes of change. Just like any good old fashioned historian would. He introduces MLS in three equations: the original Price equation, a modified version that sets the conditions for the spread of prosocial behavior, and a third one describing the conditions for the spread of cultural practices promoting group unity.

That’s great. Except that nowhere in the paper are these equations then used in combination with actual empirical data! The Price equation is structured around these variables: the difference in cooperators from one generation to the next; the between- and within-group genetic variances; the between-group selection coefficients; and the within-group selection coefficients. But Peter never estimates any of these quantities.

Because he can’t. We are not going to know how many people or sub-groups could reasonably be classified as cooperators or non-cooperators in any given instance, like the Peloponnesian War. More importantly, again, it is fuzzy to the level of incomprehension what counts as a group and what sort of selective pressures any such group was under.

Both you and him appear to think that these are just details, no more complicated than accounting for horizontal gene transfer in biological systems. But, once more, the proof is in the pudding, and I haven’t seen any yet.

The rest of Peter’s paper is interesting, and a good example of quantitative analysis applied to historical questions. We learn that “mega-empires” arise when there are domesticated animals that are good for warfare: horses more than camels, camels better than nothing. I’m not sure any historian would be shocked to discover this, though. Figure 3 graphs time vs the territory occupied by empires. There are two spikes, corresponding to the invention of chariot warfare and to the introduction of mounted warfare. Good to have the data, but do we really want to kid ourselves in thinking that this is a novel insight generated by evolutionary theory?

The most interesting bit comes on p. 17, where Peter, again correctly, says that “many different mechanisms” are involved in social evolution. One such mechanism, he admits, is that “human societies, or their decision-making institutions, may anticipate the eventual results of group selection in many contexts and get there first. Such anticipative selection, when it works, will yield the most rapid rate of social change.” He may call this “anticipative selection,” but I call it conscious volitional decision making, something that is nowhere to be found in Price’s equation and that constitutes the crux of the problem and the foundation of my skepticism: we can think about stuff before acting on it, and our thinking is influenced by many factors, including cultural institutions (states, ideologies), personal motivations (friendships, love), and so forth. Do we seriously contend that all of that can be satisfactorily captured by exactly four variables?

Peter states, correctly, that “cultural group selection operates on the ability of groups to avoid dissolution and to reproduce themselves.” I ask again: what counts as a group, and why? Was Athens a group? Was the Peloponnesian League? Where the Spartan helots? The Athenian aristocrats of whom Alcibiades was a member? The regular citizens who voted to kill Socrates? And more: did these groups reproduce? How? What was the offspring? Without clear answers to these questions, that can be quantitatively operationalized in mathematical structures such as the Price equation, we’ve got nothing but a potentially misleading metaphor.

Peter adds (emphasis mine): “The model advanced in this paper avoids specific assumptions about the nature of cultural variation and the mode of cultural evolution. I acknowledge this as a serious theoretical problem, but I believe that we do not have to wait until the mechanisms of cultural evolution are worked out in detail. The example of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was an extremely useful vehicle for organizing research even before the nature of genes was understood, is heartening.” No, it isn’t. Peter seems to forget that Darwinism went into an eclipse and was considered near-dead by paleontologists, developmental biologists and others at the turn of the 20th century. What revived it was precisely the elucidation of the mechanisms of inheritance. That’s what the Modern Synthesis was all about. We haven’t had anything remotely like that in the case of cultural evolution. I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m asking for why you think it has already happened.

Finally, you say: “Our distant ancestors became exceptionally good at suppressing disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups so that between-group selection became the primary evolutionary force, favoring teamwork in all its forms. That’s what our moral psychology is all about.” No, it most definitely isn’t! Those may have been the roots of moral instincts, but morality since the invention of religion, philosophy, and politics is a lot more complicated that just favoring teamwork. Which is why I argue that biology provides the boundary conditions for the emergence of culture, but that culture is its own beast, characterized by its own dynamics and modalities. Using the same tool to tackle widely diverse problems is simply not productive, like the proverbial guy who kept thinking that everything is a nail because he only had a hammer.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci
7 June
Dear Massimo Pigliucci,

We have agreed that this will be the final round of our letter exchange. Thanks for engaging with me and to for creating the forum.

It’s ironic that you end your last letter with the adage “To a man with only a hammer, everything seems like a nail” because throughout our exchange, and in much of my other writing, I have emphasized evolutionary theory as a toolkit. To a person with a toolkit, the right tools can be chosen for each job.

I’m betting that you like the toolkit metaphor for the study of biological evolution. Our difference is that I think the same toolkit applies to the study of human cultural evolution and you don’t. As you put it, “biology provides boundary conditions for the emergence of culture, but that culture is its own beast, characterized with its own boundaries and modalities.”

This apartheid between the biological and human-related disciplines has been defended throughout the 20th century. How well have the human-related academic disciplines done with their autonomy? Have they developed a separate toolkit anything like the evolutionary toolkit? No! There is no coherence whatsoever. At best, there are hundreds of local toolkits that address limited subject areas without even aspiring to have a more general explanatory scope.

An interesting comparison can be made between island archipelagos and academic disciplines as islands of thought with little communication among islands. In a real archipelago, populations diverge due to a combination of isolation and response to different selection pressures. When they diverge enough, they become different species that can’t interbreed.

In academic archipelagos, cultural divergence takes place and the counterpart of speciation is mutual incomprehension. This is true not only for the major disciplines but also for schools of thought within each discipline. There’s cultural evolution for you!

The reason that this happens to a much lesser degree in biology is because of a general theoretical framework—that toolkit I keep talking about—which provides a common language for studying all aspects of all species. There is nothing like it in the human-related disciplines.

Although you might not think I am using the appropriate toolkit, for the last ten years I have been on the job, trying to address real-world issues such as economics, education, and prosociality in all its forms from an evolutionary perspective. I will devote the rest of my final letter reporting my experience.

One thing I can report is that the evolutionary toolkit needed to understand and improve the human condition is not restricted to the study of human cultural evolution. There is also a dire need for a more sophisticated understanding of humans as a product of genetic evolution. Calls for economic theory to be based on Homo sapiens rather than Homo economicus have become so common that the main wonder is how the orthodoxy can withstand the barrage. The Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail makes the same point in his book Deep History and the Brain, where he points out that most world histories begin in the Middle East about 6000 years ago, the reputed location of the Garden of Eden and the Biblical creation of the earth. Shouldn’t historians be pushing back their study a little earlier? To out of Africa, perhaps, or earlier still? Shouldn’t they acquire an interest in the human brain as a product of evolution? Might not such knowledge inform the study of how people think and act at any time or place in history? Smail is trained as a Medieval historian and is trying to break down the wall from the other side.

Your “show me” attitude about MLS theory, what counts as selection, and what counts as a group can be seen in a new light when we consider the groups that exist all around us. In nearly every case, we call them groups because they are sets of people who socially interact in a given context—our sports team, our church, our workplace, our family, our volunteer group, our platoon. We know who is a member and what is expected of them, which enables us to distinguish the solid citizens from the slackers and disruptors. When someone gains at the expense of others within the same group, that is a selection differential that tends to replicate the same behavior the next time around, in the same and observing individuals. When a group functions effectively as a team, compared to other groups, then that is a selective differential at a larger scale that also tends to replicate the next time around. Knowing this, we can structure groups in a way that suppresses disruptive competition within groups, which can be regarded as a cultural major transition, similar in its consequences to genetic major transitions. And history is nothing other than a fossil record of the same multilevel social interactions that are taking place in the present.

In closing, my good friend and sparring partner, I worry that completing the Darwinian revolution is a train leaving without you. A while back I did a study of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the #1 academic journal in its discipline. I showed that during the period 2000-2004, about a third of the target articles were from an evolutionary perspective. In addition, most of the authors received their primary training in a human-related discipline and picked up their evolutionary knowledge on their own. Like the historian Daniel Lord Smail, they were breaking down the apartheid from the other side. The current study of human cultural evolution, along with all else human from an evolutionary perspective, is a model of trans-disciplinarity. In response to your adage “To a man with only a hammer, everything seems like a nail”, I will add “A person with a toolkit gets the job done” and “To a person with only an armchair, everything becomes a speculation.”

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson
7 June
Dear David Sloan Wilson,

Thank you for what has been an illuminating discussion, which will hopefully be helpful to others as they think about the relationship between biological and cultural evolution.

You talk about an “apartheid” that I allegedly want to enforce between biological and humanistic disciplines. But would you consider physics and history to be in a state of apartheid just because quantum mechanics has nothing to say about the Peloponnesian War? My question is pragmatic: I have repeatedly asked you to provide some detail concerning how MLS theory helps understanding historical events because the proof is in the pudding. My assessment of our exchange is that you have not provided any pudding at all.

You make an incredible statement about the allegedly dire straits in which humanistic disciplines navigate, apparently without realizing that they have been doing just fine without the MLS “framework.” You seem to think that the humanities are in shambles, but my impression from the inside is that they are in no need of “salvation” from the sciences, though of course any meaningful (as distinct from forced) collaboration should always be welcome.

You propose a nice metaphor, analogizing different academic disciplines to highlands in an archipelago. But any philosopher will tell you that analogical arguments are among the weakest. Moreover, when you say that the humanities lack the conceptual unification provided in biology by the Darwinian theory you are assuming the sciences as the model for scholarship. Why? Also, plenty of sciences do not have any such unitary frame, think of geology, for instance (continental drift is a crucial theory, but not a unifying framework). And yet, I doubt geologists can use any help from the biological sciences.

Moreover, you seem to assume a “unity of science” notion, which has been debated and criticized, most effectively by John Dupré in his The Disorder of Things; by Ian Hacking in Representing and Intervening; and by Nancy Cartwright in How the Laws of Physics Lie. It is this entirely undefended assumption of yours that I have been challenging all along.

You rightly call for economic theories to internalize what we know about actual human behavior, rather than starting from the simplifying assumption of a Homo economicus. But that’s what they have been doing, for years now, in the form of behavioral economics, and without any help at all from MLS theory. That’s because the most informative level of description that is complementary to economics comes from psychology, not biology (or chemistry, or physics).

In general, I see science as being in the business of providing a number of pertinent levels of description of various phenomena, none of which is intrinsically more important or fundamental. If I’m interested in cosmology, physics is relevant, biology and economics not at all. If I’m interested in history, psychology is relevant, physics not at all. And so forth. The disciplines that do not provide meaningful levels of description for a particular problem are then moved to the background. For instance, even if quantum mechanics provides no insight at all into human history, human beings (like everything else in the universe) are still made of quarks, and still abide by the laws of physics. It’s just that these latter two facts do not provide any additional meaningful insight to historians. Does evolutionary biology? Well, we are back to the pudding…

You ask: shouldn’t historians extend their research further back than 6000 years ago? To the Pleistocene perhaps? But the 6000-year time frame is not, as you suggest, arbitrarily provided by the biblical story of creation. It’s determined by the existence of written documentations. It’s not that historians aren’t interested in what came before. It’s that what came before is not documented in writing, so it is part of pre-history. Of course the two disciplines have porous boundaries, as they should. But the further back you go into pre-history (or the more recent in history) the less exchanges across those boundaries become relevant to problems raised within each field. An understanding of pre-history is germane to the early rise of civilizations. Much less so to an understand of the Hundred Years War.

You seem a bit dismissive of what you refer to as my “show me” attitude. But isn’t that what science is about? Shouldn’t someone who makes a positive claim — like yours about the relevance of MLS theory to the study of ancient Greek history — actually provide evidence, not just general statements, in support of such claim?

You call the city-states of ancient Greece “groups” because “they are sets of people who socially interact in a given context.” But that’s the standard language definition of groups, not the one relevant to MLS. For the latter you need more: you need groups that reproduce, you need mechanisms of inheritance, and you need an operational definition of fitness. None of which you have provided, despite my repeated prompts.

You worry that the train completing the Darwinian revolution is leaving without me. I am worried that you got on the wrong train, to stick with the same metaphor. It’s a bit unfortunate, given the constructiveness and cordiality of our exchange, that you chose to end it with a snide remark about the fact that to people in armchairs everything is speculation. But I’ll bite. Theoretical biology is also done in armchairs, and is nonetheless very useful, as I’m sure you will acknowledge. But usefulness, not a priori decisions about how disciplines should interact, is the relevant criterion. As John Platt put it back in 1964 in Science: “We speak piously of … add[ing] another brick to the temple of science. Most such bricks just lie around the brickyard.” It remains to be seen which kind of brick will the notion of applying MLS theory to the understanding of the Peloponnesian War and similar historical events end up being.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

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