UBC Faculty Research and Publications

An evolutionary framework for cultural change : selectionism versus communal exchange Gabora, Liane


Dawkins’ replicator-based conception of evolution has led to widespread misapplication of selectionism across the social sciences because it does not address the paradox that inspired the theory of natural selection in the first place: how do organisms accumulate change when traits acquired over their lifetime are obliterated? This is addressed by von Neumann’s concept of a self-replicating automaton (SRA). A SRA consists of a self-assembly code that is used in two distinct ways: (1) actively deciphered during development to construct a self-similar replicant, and (2) passively copied to the replicant to ensure that it can reproduce. Information that is acquired over a lifetime is not transmitted to offspring, whereas information that is inherited during copying is transmitted. In cultural evolution there is no mechanism for discarding acquired change. Acquired change can accumulate orders of magnitude faster than, and quickly overwhelm, inherited change due to differential replication of variants in response to selection. This prohibits a selectionist but not an evolutionary framework for culture and the creative processes that fuel it. The importance non-Darwinian processes in biological evolution is increasingly recognized. Recent work on the origin of life suggests that early life evolved through a non-Darwinian process referred to as communal exchange that does not involve a self-assembly code, and that natural selection emerged from this more haphazard, ancestral evolutionary process. It is proposed that communal exchange provides an evolutionary framework for culture that enables specification of cognitive features necessary for a (real or artificial) society to evolve culture. This is supported by a computational model of cultural evolution and a conceptual network based program for documenting material cultural history, and it is consistent with high levels of human cooperation.

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