Theory & Science (2007)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions�Intentionality, the Growth of Knowledge, and Cultural Evolution: Establishing Evolutionary Reasoning in the Social Sciences

Jon VanWieren

Western Michigan University


The purpose of this paper is to work toward developing evolutionary reasoning in the social sciences. There are reasons for being critical of bland evolutionary metaphors and simplistic applications of neo-Darwinian methods and conceptual tools to the study of human culture and society. I believe, however, that the arguments on the other side of these criticisms are stronger. There is sufficient grounds and evidence supporting some of the insights from evolutionary epistemology regarding the growth of knowledge. Here I focus on the role of intentionality and cumulative knowledge in driving cultural evolution, as well as some of the implications of a co-evolutionary understanding of human biology and culture. I present this case to the social sciences, particularly areas of science and technology studies, making the argument that the approach of deconstructionism and/or metaphysical constructivism, typical of the field, is incapable of dealing with the realties of the natural world and some of the radical implications of new knowledge across the life sciences. I argue here for a re-naturalized understanding of human beings, culture, and society.

Keywords: Cultural change. Cultural evolution. Darwinian methods. Intentionality. Knowledge. Naturalized social science. Naturalized Realism. Technical innovation.


The social sciences lack a shared theoretical foundation. Today there still seems to be some confusion over the mission and purpose of the social sciences. Are they even sciences, or something closer to arts? Should their goal be to interpret, quantify, liberate, or evaluate? For many, the answer is likely: all of the above.

Things did not start this way, however, at least not for sociology. Auguste Comte envisioned sociology to be the last science, a science that would incorporate relevant knowledge and findings from across the sciences into a unified whole. It would seem that today this view of sociology, and the social sciences more generally, is not widely shared. Specialization and compartmentalization seem closer to the norm. C.P. Snow’s portrait of the academic world had it split between the sciences and the humanities, with rarely these two seeing eye-to-eye. More recently, there has been the controversy surrounding the “science wars” and the sociobiology uproar. Ullica Segerstråle has documented both of these controversies superbly (2000a, b). Segerstråle’s surveys bring light to the real and continuing debate over the nature of science and its social aspects.

Here I would like to explore some of these matters. My primary purpose here is to contribute to an argument for evolutionary reasoning in social science. This argument has been around for a while in different forms. When thinking about the earlier forms of evolutionary thought in social science, we often remember Spencer, and the pro and anti phases of evolutionism in anthropology and sociology generally. The thinking and argument here, however, shares little with the more or less transformational evolutionary theories of the past (see Reisman, 2005). Along with a number of others working in this area, those who recognize the variational character of a properly Darwinian theory of evolution, I believe that a theoretical program centered on evolutionary reasoning has much to offer the social sciences through a broadening of our understanding of behavior and culture.

Here I will be considering three aspects of the evolutionary argument as directed toward the social sciences. There are a few basic premises I’ll be working with here that are already rather well established, while their implications have gone largely unrealized. Taken together, they offer a convincing case for the establishment of a theoretical groundwork based on naturalized realism.

The three aspects of the argument I’ll focus on are these: 1) First, human knowledge has accumulated over history. We can understand the growth of knowledge as both neurobiological and cultural. In fact, it is helpful to understand both of these in order to get at the larger picture. The gist of this first aspect of the argument stems from ideas associated with evolutionary epistemology, as developed by Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell. Recent neurobiological research supports the basic thrust of evolutionary epistemology (see Edelman, 2006; Wexler, 2006). 2) Second, human beings are conscious intentional agents. Often, this fact is taken to mean that human behavior and decisions stand outside the natural world and are therefore not subject to “natural” understandings. I will argue against this commonly held notion. Here also, intentionality will be shown to be at the basis of the growth of knowledge, and at the foundation of culture. 3) Third, increased knowledge and information lead to social and cultural change. Understanding how knowledge and information accumulate helps to show how culture evolves according to mechanisms of variation and selection, largely based on human decisions (and human minds), but also on hidden-hand mechanisms (see Sterelny, 2006). The driving force of variation within culture is new information and innovation; this is true across the areas of beliefs, ideas, science and technology. Furthermore, if our goal is indeed to better understand culture and human behavior, recognizing the biological basis of culture will allow us to better understand the co-evolutionary process of biological and cultural evolution, existing in tandem. My efforts here are directed toward some of the basic elements of our aptitude toward culture, this in an effort to establish a groundwork for understanding its more developed forms through language, symbols, values, norms, and beliefs.


It is always a good idea to remind ourselves of the facts, to remind ourselves of what we actually know.

-John R. Searle.

2.1 Cumulative Knowledge

Do we know more today than we did in the past- more than we did twenty thousand, two thousand, or twenty years ago? I would guess that many of us would say yes. Others might not be quite as willing to support this matter-of-fact common-sense conjecture. If it is not true, what might be our reasons for rejecting this claim?

It is not entirely uncommon to hear lectures on this topic and a version of Thomas Kuhn’s thesis of scientific revolutions (sometimes in social science departments). According to some, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) reveals the history of science as a series of irreconcilable “paradigm shifts.” Supporters of this thesis maintain that it is a liberating lesson for all of us in that it shows that no single paradigm of knowledge holds any greater or ultimate hold on truth or reality over any other. This, however, would be an extreme interpretation of Kuhn’s thesis.

Taking the basic thrust of Kuhn’s argument seriously, there is little doubt that knowledge has undergone change over history. Are we to take this to mean that science is somehow a sham? There is debate on whether or not Kuhn’s argument was meant as a wholesale criticism of science itself or a criticism of science from within- one that does not jeopardize scientific practice itself.

The Kuhnian debate rages on between scientists, philosophers, and within the social sciences and humanities. Some critics of science inspired by Kuhn have abandoned philosophical and evidential arguments altogether in favor of criticisms based on purely social grounds. In some circles the scientific enterprise itself has come under fire as an expression of power, cultural elitism, Western imperialism, male domination, and the privileging of certain political and value-interests. It is perhaps interesting that some of the most fiercely “deconstructionist” narratives of this sort come from within Science and Technology Studies (STS). Robert Merton’s brand of sociology of science has long been replaced by the spirit of Barnes and Bloor’s “strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge”, incommensurability, and an emphasis political and social interests. The general grounds of argument from critiques of science such as these is that knowledge is shaped by its social context, held captive there within local practices, norms and conventions. For example, Latour and Woolgar emphasized the “actor-network” theory, a theory that scientific work and practice itself drives claims on truth, nature, and facts (see Godfrey-Smith 2003). “Feminist epistemology” goes further, claiming that science is political, a male dominated field serving male institutions of knowledge. The field is characterized by Sismondo (2004) as one that takes a variety of anti-essentialist positions. Radical skeptics hold that no scientific method is capable of translating nature into knowledge. The prime impetus of the field seems to be the pursuit of showing how scientific knowledge is socially constructed, not discovered. Some of these arguments are serious and plausible . Sometimes, authors working in this vein draw upon the works of respectable philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Rorty, Feyerabend, and occasionally the classical skeptical arguments of Hume, Berkeley and Kant (take your pick on the “respectable” ones) in support of what might generally be characterized as relativist, anti-universal, and anti-knowledge approaches to science. What makes some of these positions even more peculiar today, in their most radical form, is the overwhelming success of science and technology in recent times. While such success does not always betoken truth (Kitcher 2001), such success does force us to recognize the power of new discoveries within the sciences to reorganize social life, at the very least.

This state of affairs, evidenced through the science wars and the sociobiology debate, has led some of the more common-sense persuasion to object that STS has abandoned its original mission, as Ziman has (2000a). It has left others to ask if there might be something more unconscious at work with certain domains of the social sciences, such as a Fear of Knowledge (Boghossian, 2006).

While a simple scientific realism invites jeers (Kitcher 2001), and a healthy does of skepticism is of course a necessary element in science and philosophy, my argument here is that the anti-realist position stands on shaky, fragmenting ground. The positions of “metaphysical constructivism” and/or “ontological nihilism” disregard the evidential grounds upon which the sciences are based, supplanting social grounds at every turn. All of this leaves many within STS and some within the social sciences in support of a position that denies the obvious while turning from reality.

While these examples may be seen as the polar ends of the scientist-humanist spectrum, in part they represent the divergence of views held within the social sciences. It remains the case that social sciences lack an agreed upon theoretical grounding, and more fundamentally a basic agreement on what stands for knowledge. This seems so across the various quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches. Along with the recognition of multiple truths, we have recognized the need for different criteria of validation. In response, a host of theoretical positions and standpoints have been called upon in defense of ones chosen criteria, or lack of criteria, for validation.

We might trace these developments, in part, back to the anti-Enlightenment response of Vico (1668-1744), this through Edelman (2006) and historian Isaiah Berlin. Vico dampened the spirit of the Enlightenment by contesting that human beings make their own history, and should understand themselves in a way that is different from how they understand external nature. Dilthey (1833-1911) too argued that the study of human beings requires a separate logic. He proposed that disciplines be separated into Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences) and Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences). Dilthey’s hermeneutics holds that human behavior requires interpretation within a historical culture, and that human beings are creatures that will, feel, and think (Edelman, 2006).

With this, we come to the root of the matter. Does human consciousness and free will remove human beings from naturalized understandings? Simply, is human behavior and human culture off limits to theories and methods from natural science?

In addressing this question, I will later argue that we make an effort to re-think culture. This re-thinking will be one that takes stock of what we know about evolutionary science, human origins, and our brains. Before re-thinking culture, we might first think a bit more about knowledge, and the evolutionary approach to knowledge as developed by Karl Popper and Donald T. Campbell.

2.2 Incommensurable Paradigms?

The problem with Kuhn’s thesis on paradigm shifts in science is that they do not occur, at least not in their extreme version- the version most often touted by critics of science. We might start with the glaring fact that Kuhn was not entirely clear when he discussed “paradigm shifts”- which some have pointed out is a term he uses in at least twenty different ways (Mayr, 2004). Also, there is no clear-cut way to distinguish revolutions from “normal science.” Normal science includes a gradation between minor and major theory changes, that is, theory change is part of normal science. Furthermore, as Ernst Mayr points out, Kuhn made no distinction between theory change caused by discoveries and theory changed caused by the development of new concepts, entailing different implications. New discoveries that fit within an established theoretical framework may not have as significant an impact as new conceptualizations.

On incommensurability, Kuhn has been read as implying that when a new discovery or theory is developed, the old one is replaced. Godfrey-Smith has suggested that in this respect Kuhn was too focused on the case of theoretical physics (2003). In reality, this is far from the case across scientific practice. As Mayr summarizes:

The picture of theory change that Kuhn painted in 1962 was congenial to the essentialist thinking of physicalists. However, it is incompatible with the gradualist thinking of a Darwinian. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Darwinian epistemologists introduced an entirely different conceptualization for theory change in biology, usually referred to as evolutionary epistemology (Mayr, 2004: 167).

We should not forget that evolutionary ideas had been floating around well before Darwin, and that Darwin’s fundamental contribution was his conceptualization of population thinking and natural selection, concepts supported through his field research. Another point here is that when new discoveries are made or new concepts developed, the earlier knowledge does not simply evaporate into non-existence. It sticks around, in at least one of two ways. If the knowledge is not already a fundamental prerequisite to the new discoveries or theories, which is often the case, then the remaining theories compete based on their ability to correspond with the best of what we know of the external world at the time.

2.3 Evolutionary Epistemology

The fact that theories compete, in everyday knowledge and science, is a central aspect of evolutionary epistemology. Here we might identify two aspects of the evolutionary epistemology project. The first is that:

An evolutionary epistemology would be at minimum an epistemology taking cognizance of and compatible with man’s status as a product of biological and social evolution (Campbell, 1988: 393).

We, the rational among us, know that human beings are a product of biological evolution, but do we take this (rather solid) evidence seriously enough? We are aware of some of the implications here. Over the years our brains have changed, seemingly for the better, with an enlarging of our cognitive capacity (Mayr, 2001). When exactly the major jump in knowledge occurred is a question for us all, and especially for the record of human origins.

Neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman (2006) offers an insightful assessment of brain science and the development of human knowledge. His project starts with what he and others have called “Neural Darwinism.” But if we were to associate Edelman with the “sociobiologists”, as the initial impulse might be, we would be mistaken. Edelman rejects severe reductionism, just as he rejects the primary alternative, Cartesian mind-body dualism. Edelman recalls that is was Ren é Descartes who helped to remove the mind from nature by extracting the mind from the body. Edelman is confident that discoveries about the brain in the past twenty years free us from the body-mind predicament, as well as the trappings of phenomenal subjectivity. Edelman’s science supports an extension of Willard Van Orman Quine’s naturalized epistemology.

In regards to naturalism, Karl Popper too worked in this general direction , holding that there is a connection between natural selection and the emergence of mind (1978). Still, this aspect of Popper’s project has yet to make as serious an impact as it warrants within the social sciences. For the most part, such efforts are still received with hostility and taken as a form of biological reductionism. This seems somewhat peculiar today, given that evolution is a theoretical-scientific framework that most of us accept when it comes to butterflies and finches. But evolution, the argument here is, is also a knowledge process, especially for human beings, as Popper and Campbell have shown ( Campbell, 1988). Popper’s primary contribution to evolutionary epistemology was to recognize that scientific theories go through a selective elimination process. Theories about the world must be tested, and therefore can also be falsified (but not entirely proven according to Popper, who gives full attention to Hume’s problem of induction).

The history of basic knowledge growth can also be seen as a process of selection and elimination (or retention). Popper’s ideas about conjecture and refutation can well be applied to the trial and error learning of early human beings, whose conjectures about the world around them (I believethat if I eatthis mushroom it might kill me) had a clear survival value. Also, learning and perception are essential aspects of the knowledge process.

The method of learning by trial and error- of learning from our mistakes- seems to be fundamentally the same whether it is practiced by lower or by higher animals, by chimpanzees or by men of science (Popper; Campbell, 1988: 398).

For Popper a central problem of all epistemology is the growth of knowledge, the expansions and breakouts from the limits of prior wisdom ( Campbell, 1988). According to Kuhn, and an extreme reading of his thesis, when new knowledge is gained it is a paradigm shift, not an accumulation. Or worse, the shift in beliefs is the result of a socially or politically charged power game, not the growth of actual knowledge. Of course, these things are part of the picture. However, while the practice certainly can be tainted, science as an endeavor is still ultimately a choice, one that depends on the willingness to submit ones beliefs and theories to testing.

Still, skeptics have good reason to hold that there are problems with a naïve or common-sense approach to everyday and scientific knowledge. If it is true that our present theories are the most plausible, a tautology presents itself. “What are the most plausible theories? They are our present ones.” Also, how can we know that our perceptions aren’t deceiving us (external world skepticism), and how can we know that what we’ve learned from our past or present theories is not mistaken? If we take the problem of perception seriously, direct empiricism is of little value, the thing itself will always escape us. And if we take seriously Putnam’s argument that meanings aren’t just in our heads, but are connected with other external relations (“externalism”), then how are we to get around the claim that all of our knowledge is out there with others or language-dependent, or worse, entirely socially constructed with no universal truth value?

Searle (1995, 1998) has proposed solutions to some of these problems, in part, through his recognition of “brute” (natural realities) and “institutional” (social realities) facts. Socially constructed facts about the social world are the reality; we have language, money, and other social institutions to show for it. Yet, the external world is real, and exists independent of our thoughts about it. In similar fashion, Godfrey-Smith offers a way around this dilemma, a way that allows for common-sense realism while also allowing for the possibility of unexpected breakouts from past knowledge. Common-sense realism does assume that we can know the world in important ways, while also being responsive to naturalistic science:

Common-sense Realism Naturalized: We all in habit a common reality, which has a structure that exists independently of what people think and say about it, except insofar as reality is comprised of thoughts, theories, and other symbols, and except insofar as reality is dependent on thoughts, theories, and other symbols in ways that might be uncovered by science (2003: 176).

Naturalized common-sense realism places a degree of faith, a degree of reasoned faith open to testing, in our ability to strive toward and accumulate knowledge through science. In large part, our ability to make discoveries and develop concepts depends on our brains and our cognitive mechanisms- a clear product of natural evolution. Therefore, the two levels of evolutionary epistemology {1-attention on Neural Darwinism or brain-based epistemology, and 2- the metatheory of the development of ideas and scientific theories through conjecture-refutation and falsification}, are clearly interconnected. Finally, while we can be quite sure that present day neurology, Darwinian Theory, and Popperian testing of theories through falsification are not perfect, we can be quite sure that they correspond more closely to external reality as compared with other past and competing theories of the natural world such as Manichaeism, Greek Monism, or Christian Creationism.

Evolutionary epistemology and naturalized realism are the starting ground in the development of a naturalized social science. Such a social science would take stock of our deep evolutionary history while striving to stay current with new conceptualizations and discoveries in science.

2.4 Summary of First Argument

Knowledge grows. Knowledge shares a feedback relationship with information and intentionality. More knowledge, and the ability to access and process this knowledge, means more information and more openings for further intentionality (more choices and decisions to make, see Dennett 2003). More intentionality and information means more access to knowledge. The growth of knowledge stimulates cultural change.


3.1 The Naturalistic Fallacy?

Yet, even with these theoretical prerequisites in place, a naturalistic social science still faces the “naturalistic fallacy.” The naturalistic fallacy has been used in the past as a sort of blanket objection to attempts to understand culture through nature. The naturalistic fallacy is usually taken to mean that we can’t derive ought from is, related to Hume’s is/ought gap. More formally, it is a logical error in ethics attributed to Moore (see Allhoff, 2003). Usually, the naturalistic fallacy is elicited in response to attempts to explain away behavior as “natural”, and therefore determined or morally/ethically allowable. Apart from ethics (which is an admitted impossibility in a pragmatic or value-orientated social science) what’s the basic lesson we are to learn from the naturalistic fallacy? The lesson seems to be that while human beings are of course animals, human behavior cannot be reduced or subjected to natural explanations. This is because human beings have a choice to behave differently, they have consciousness, intentionality, agency, and are cultural-social animals, not instinctual animals. Therefore, simplistic “natural” explanations of human behavior simply do not apply when it comes to complex social things. This is thought to especially be the case given historical contingency, along with class, race and gender struggles, and all of the other dramas of human life- all of which are the product not of “nature”, but of our own decisions. Having decision-making power removes us in an important way from nature.

The question of decisions is an interesting one for nature. This matter is an important one in the philosophy of mind, as Sterelny and Griffiths (1999) illustrate.

We generally assume that most adult humans are intentional agents. But when in human development do we come to be agents? Are any other animals agents, and hence deserving of the respect and protection of the law? Is it possible in principle to build agents? (170).

These questions can be asked of our developmental cycle and our evolutionary origins. Intentionality is a matter of mind. Humans have minds. But how did human consciousness evolve? And when did/do human beings gain decision-making agency?

This is a question that psychologists love to ask. The answer is actually quite simple: from animal consciousness! There is no justification in the widespread assumption that consciousness is a unique human property (Mayr, 2001: 282).

We know our minds are quite different from those of other animals, but how different? The specifics require a look into the known and speculated nature of consciousness and intentionality.

Generally, we can think of at least two approaches to mind- the philosophy of mind, and the hard science of neurobiology. We can be safe in assuming that most neuroscientists are well aware of the brain’s evolutionary history and the implications for understanding of how our brains work (see Wexler, 2006; and Edelman, 2006).

In the philosophy of mind, we have available to us biologically based, naturalized understanding of the mind through the efforts of at least two prominent philosophers, John Searle and Daniel Dennett. Earlier, Popper also had a few ideas on the emergence of mind and these matters more generally.

Thinking about the mind, we should start by remembering how we got into the problem in the first place, in part through Descartes’ mind-body split. While Searle and Dennett have debates raging on some of the specifics, they both agree that Cartesian dualism needs to be rejected in favor of an understanding of the mind that has as its basis in biological naturalism and/or Neural Darwinism.

Searle (1995, 1998, 2004) has provided a clear way around this mind-body problem by pointing out that while we indeed possess first-person qualitative/subjective/phenomenal experiences, ultimately the mind has a biological source, the brain, which our conscious experiences cannot be separated from.

Intentionality is the special way the mind has of relating us to the world (Searle, 1998). In cognitive science, intentionality is also known as information (2004). Intentionality is often confused with directly observable sorts of direct actions, or direct intent, but is simply aboutness- to have competence about something else in our minds (Dennett, 1996). Conscious states are often intentional. However, not all conscious states are intentional, and not all intentionality is conscious.

Consciousness and intentionality grant us agency and free will, the underlining cause of social behavior- the reason for our separate status from the rest of the natural world. The question is: Does free will alone separate us from nature? The answer is no. In fact, in a recent article scientists John Conway and Simon Kochen of Princeton University have proposed that even electrons have free will (Seed, 2006). Of course, the agency of electrons and macromolecules is different from ours. Lower-level agents are unaware of the reasons for what they do. While,

We, in contrast, often know full well what we do. At our best- and at our worst- we human agents can perform intentional actions, after having deliberated consciously about the reasons for and against (Dennett, 1996: 20).

As Dennett explains, the less developed sort of agency is the “ground from which the seeds of our kind of agency could grow” (21). While Searle and Dennett debate the details here too, Dennett’s notion of adopting the intentional stance clears some of the confusion surrounding mind and behavior. Summarizing,

The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its “choice” of “action” by a “consideration” of its “beliefs” and “desires” (1996: 27).

Other natural creatures have agency, and therefore agency alone does not remove us from the natural order of things. Yet, our agency is different from other entities because of our ability to perceive, process, evaluate and decide upon a course of action based on our beliefs and desires. Other creatures do some of this, but no where near us, as the most open of open behavioral systems. Therefore we are not separate from nature simply because we possess agency, but we are a special case within nature.

Higher-order intentionality is an important advance in kinds of minds (Dennett, 1996). There is little question that the human mind represents a higher-order consciousness, as compared to lower-order conscious animals. Higher-order intentionality places us at the extreme end of the open behavioral programs, compared to closed behavior programs (Mayr, 1978). A closed behavior program is one in which little or nothing can be inserted into it through experience, its behavior is innate, typical of lower-order entities. We are open programs. The capacity for intentionality is the basis of cumulative knowledge, as well as culture. As open systems, we have the potential to change our relation to the social world through greater knowledge of the external physical world. However,

An open program is by no means a tabula rasa; certain types of information are more easily incorporated than others. This is as true for imprinting as for ordinary learning (Mayr, 1978: 698).

There are other factors influencing these choices as well, some neurological others ideological (Wexler, 2006).Wexler shows that ingrained patterns of belief and behavior can be difficult to shake, and also that internal structures often shape our experience of the external world in accordance with their own forms.

Important here too is that beliefs and desires are a special case of intentionality for us. As Searle (2004) explains, as intentional states they may on appearance seem similar. But they are different.

In the case of belief, the intentional state is supposed to represent how things are in the world. The belief is, so to speak, responsible for fitting the world. But in the case of the desire, it is not the aim of the desire to represent how things are but rather how we would like them to be. In the case of the desire it is so to speak, the responsibility of the world to fit the content of the desire (168).

Our beliefs about the world can be true or false, or without truth value. Our beliefs are responsible for fitting the world. Our beliefs assert: “This is the way the world is.” As far as intentional states go, a true belief would seem to be more valuable to us than a false belief (but not necessarily), and also more valuable to the growth of knowledge. For the knowledge-optimist, knowledge claims based on true beliefs and accurate information will win out over false beliefs over the long haul. However, desires come into play here as well, as we well know. People, through self-interest, often wish to influence which beliefs are held as true or which false. Testing these beliefs through reason, logic, and science generally, is one way to combat this (see Kitcher, 2001; Dennett, 2006). In comparison to belief, desire has what Searle (2004) points out is a world-to-mind direction of fit. We want the world to fit what we have in our minds (something shown in the neurological research, see Wexler, 2006). Desires and intentions are not true or false in the way beliefs are, because their interest is to get external reality to match their content. In regards to the naturalistic fallacy, it is concerned with desire, the way we think the world ought to be. As an ethical consideration it does not address our beliefs about the nature of the world. It is based on value-interests. The naturalistic fallacy, the is/ought gap, addresses desires, and does not directly address beliefs. Therefore, it alone cannot be used as a reason why the social sciences should not learn lessons from external reality. It is important for the social sciences to work toward understanding both the nature of our beliefs and the nature of our desires. Both are entangled within human decisions and behavior- a matter covered in the next section.

3.2 Summary of Second Argument

Knowledge accumulates because we are intentional creatures with memory, two prerequisites of culture. Intentionality, entailing awareness, allows us to make decisions based on available perceptual information. Consciousness and intentionality provide us the ability to decide among available options and allow us to acquire knowledge (along with memory- cognitive and cultural). There is a clear value to greater perception, knowledge and the ability to act on our environment, as an open behavioral program.


Reproduction and mutation ensure that evolutionary change will take place. However, if these were the only effective factors, biological evolution would proceed randomly without adaptive meaning. Natural selection is the mechanism that generates biological adaptation. In cultural evolution, however, there is in addition a second mode of selection, which is the result of the capacity for decision making (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981: 10).

In the first two sections, our capacity for decision making was reviewed in light of its biological basis, through intentionality and knowledge. Whereas accounts of culture often have it as that ethereal “superorganic” thing that endows us with our special humanness, I will argue that the usual view has things turned around, that it is our biological aptitude toward intentionality and knowledge growth that allow for culture, and are the driving force behind cultural evolution.

4.1 What is Culture?

The social sciences have no doubt spent quite some time trying to answer the question of culture. Introductory textbooks often emphasize “norms” and “values” (Giddens et all. 2005), leaving a great deal open to interpretation. Amorphous definitions of culture, there is a case to be made, have led to many of the confusions surrounding its study in the social sciences. Reisman (2005) cites Edward Burnett Tylor’s classic definition of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capability and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (38).

A familiar way of approaching culture within anthropology and sociology has been to view culture as an organic whole. Culture is seen as an integrated structural whole, connected through a meaningful set of symbols, including foremost a language. Indeed, the trend within the social sciences seems to have been to view culture as a “superorganic” phenomenon (Richerson & Boyd 2006). Moreover, there has been a tendency to view culture as something almost mystical. In relation with their apparent religious and/or metaphysically implied basis, world cultures have often been seen as something sacred and more or less divinely crafted apart from the natural world. I believe it is time to seriously reconsider this view.

4.2 A Revised View of Culture

Richerson and Boyd (1985, 2006). argue that culture is crucial for understanding human behavior. While this point is quite amenable to the social sciences, the next two are likely not for many. These are that: 1) culture is part of biology, and that culture cannot be understood without 2) population thinking. Richerson and Boyd present a much-needed reclassification of culture. I am in agreement with Richerson and Boyd when they suggest that:

…the most fundamental questions of how humans came to be the kind of animal we are can only be answered by a theory in which culture has its proper role and in which it is intimately intertwined with other aspects of human biology (2006: 4).

Population thinking is important, as Mayr recognized was one of Darwin’s key contributions to biology. Population thinking is not only attractive because of its origins with Darwin, but because it offers a plausible explanation of the properties of species, including humans- with their special aptitude for culture. Population thinking is at the center of Richerson and Boyd’s theory of culture, which they concisely define below.

Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission (2006: 5; italics theirs)

The difference from the classical definitions here is the focus placed on information; as opposed to something more ethereal or less tangible. “Information is not a metaphorical term needing to be cashed into something else. It is the reality” (Runciman, 2005a: 5). Information entails any kind of mental state, conscious or not, acquired or modified through social learning and affects behavior. Information may also be described as idea, knowledge, belief, value, skill, attitude, and so. The difference from classical definitions becomes even more apparent when we consider an important addition: “most cultural variation is caused by information stored in human brains- information that got into those brains by learning from others” (Richerson and Boyd, 2006: 5).

From this view of culture, individuals’ brains or minds are at the center of scrutiny. We might contrast, for instance, Durkheim’s (1982) contention that social facts differ not only in quality from individual psychologically held facts, but also they have a different substratum, something other than just individual brains or psychology. What exactly this substratum is in Durkheim’s thinking, however, is intangible, and far from certain.

It is then individuals who have learned different sets of information in the form of skills, values, and beliefs, depending on their cultural history and learning, which may take many forms, individual and social. Culture is the collection of information stored and transmitted by individuals who comprise collections of groups, or populations. “Culture is the form that biology takes” (Searle 1995: 227).

Understanding culture in this way makes more apparent the connections between evolved human brains, human psychology, and human culture. The point that stems from here is that population thinking makes for an apt link between cultural and genetic evolution. The “superorganic” view of culture, culture as some sort of collective consciousness unto itself, is rejected, with a grounded naturalist one taking its place.

4.3 Decisions, Nature, and Cultural Evolution

With a revised view of culture presented, the question now becomes how to understand culturalchange? I believe Richerson and Boyd present a convincing case, and in part, a convincing explanation through their model of gene-culture coevolution (or dual inheritance).

The term that Richerson and Boyd use to identify the informational content of cultures is cultural variant. Cultural variants are not necessarily “memes” (Dawkins’ term). They are not high-fidelity discrete units, cultural variants are not exact “replicators.”

Cultural variants are passed on in all of the usual ways that social scientists and anthropologists talk about when they talk about socialization and enculturation. The selection of cultural variants is influenced by the forces of cultural evolution. Cultural variants compete, like variations in organisms compete. They are believed to compete in two related ways. They compete for cognitive resources of the learner, and for control of behavior. Cultures are not necessarily tightly structured wholes.

Just as biological communities rarely exist in a perfect state of equilibrium, neither do human cultural communities. While there are many examples of the remarkable staying power of human culture, such as Anabaptist cultures in the midst of modernization, such examples should not persuade us into thinking of culture as some sort of permanent Platonic form. Culture is mostly information in brains. But the content of this information goes through ebbs and flows in response to changes in available cultural variants, knowledge, and not to mention other large-scale societal, institutional, economic, and environmental changes.

Different cultural variants compete, even those without any determinable truth-value. For example, which Christian denomination’s version of the Trinity do I believe in? Cultural variants compete amongst one another within the same selective environment. From a population perspective of culture the selective environment is the individual human brain, or mind. Human brains are roughly common, and therefore provide a roughly common environment for cultural variants to compete within. Human brains pick and choose amongst the available pool of cultural variants. But brains do not exist in a vacuum; of course, there are other forces at work.

According to Richerson and Boyd, these are the “forces of cultural evolution.” These forces are identified as: random forces, including “ cultural mutation” and “ cultural drift”; and there are decision-making forces, including “ guided variation and biased transmission” (2006: 69). Decision-making forces involve those things we often think of when we think of the special character of humanness, involving will, decisions, and choices. We do not tend to think of these things as subject to natural processes or natural selection. This distinction is made by Richerson and Boyd, and others working on cultural evolution.

Here though, I will argue against the idea that natural selection and decisions (in the forms of guided variation and biased transmission- which entail social forces) need to be distinguished on conceptual grounds, leaving decisions free from naturalized understandings.

We have already covered some of this ground by focusing on the question of intentionality and decision-making in nature. The question of decisions and nature is one we often gloss over. The usual thinking goes something like: “humans make decisions; the rest of nature is purely instinctual, behavioral, or determined.”

But nature makes decisions too. “I think we have to admit that the universe is creative, or inventive”, noticed Popper (1978).

What seems clear is that organisms other than human beings have a degree of intentionality and decision making ability. Having intentionality and an ability to make decisions (“do I chase the wildebeest now or wait ‘till later,” decides the lion) does not remove these organisms from “nature” or a naturalistic analysis of their behavior. Neither do we remove from nature the powerful and influential silverback gorilla, who influences many of the decisions of those others who he comes into contact with. Like earlier, I want to suggest that human intentionality itself is not enough to remove human beings and their decisions from what we broadly understand as nature, including its mechanisms and principles.

Therefore, a properly natural view of culture is not only acceptable, but vital. Decision-making forces, including biased transmission, need not be separated from natural selection or a more broadly conceived view of human beings (and their decisions) as part of “nature.” We have more intentionality than most animals, certainly true. But the matter is one of degree, not kind. As a result; there are no grounds upon with to rest the widely accepted “superorganic” understanding and approach to human culture.

4.4 Decisions, Innovation, and Co-Evolution (Biology and Culture)

Rogers and Shoemaker (1971) have worked on their well-known characterization of the innovation-decision process in social/cultural change for some time. The importance of knowledge and its relation with decision making is generally well studied within ration-choice theories. However, I do not believe that the full implications of the relationships between knowledge, decisions, innovations, and social/cultural outcomes as a co-evolutionary process between biology and culture is either well understood or well studied within the social sciences more generally. Durham (1991) and Richerson and Boyd (2006) make this case well. Echoing their call, I am not suggesting here that I fully understand the implications yet either. However, the suggestion here is that there is indeed something going on, something that might have us soon re-thinking “human nature”, species, and Aristotle’s long held distinction between natural and artificial beings. Through radical advances in the life sciences and nanotechnology we may be ushering in a new age of natural and artificial kinds (see Lin and Allhoff, 2005; Goertzel and Bugaj, 2006).

Part of my argument here is that without a naturalized understanding of such things we fundamentally miss the point. What is interesting is that in adopting a natural stance, we open ourselves up to the tremendous importance of culture in shaping nature itself. But if we by-pass nature, as much of social science seems content to do, we fail to realize how important decisions, knowledge and culture are in shaping our world, social and natural. The prospect of nanotechnology forces recognition of this interplay of social decisions and natural outcomes. What is interesting here too is that in adopting the natural stance, we can see along with Ernst Mayr that the emergence of real novelty in the course of evolution should be regarded as a fact (Popper, 1978).

4.5 Summary of Third Argument

The ability to decide between beliefs, desires, and behaviors through intentionality is the basis of knowledge growth. Earlier, intentionality was likened to information (as is the case in neuroscience). More information means more options and more decisions to make. The argument here is that culture is also a form of information. Culture is the collection of information we decide to go with. It is the information we impose upon ourselves or have imposed upon us by others through learning and/or other forces. Culture is ideational (consisting of ideas, beliefs, values) and behavior. Our behavior does not always correspond with our ingrained or professed culture. As open behavior systems, we can make decisions between alternative ideas, beliefs and behaviors. We can make decisions, informed (by information), or uninformed. But as our experiences, as well as neurological and social psychological research shows, it is easy for beliefs and behaviors to become ingrained, and seem to be the only option available to us.


There is a serious failure in the social sciences to recognize in a significant way the relational aspects of culture, society, psychology, and nature in the study of society and human behavior. Examining more deeply the implications of culture as information and human cultures and societies as populations will have a significant impact on the traditional separation of the cultural domain from social institutions, and both from innate psychology. All three have a relation back to their foundation in brute evolutionary biology.

The suggestion that a selectionist approach “anesthetizes” history is untenable. This is because rich and expansive historical accounts matter both to historians and evolutionists. No one is interested in a simple reduction to “biological explanations”, especially in so far as we are dealing with comparative anthropological or sociological research. Further, another objection has been that cultural evolution is committed to some arbitrary criterion of progress. But this point is easily refuted by pointing out that the understanding of maladaption is just as important as adaptation. Runciman (1999, 2005a&b) points out that it is futile to search for law like regularities that hold good through the ages and across the globe, as Marxism was suppose to with the its stages from ancient to feudal to capitalist to communist modes of production. A variational understanding of evolution is interested in mechanisms and contingent outcomes, not law-like regularities.

Obviously there is still much for social and natural science to study here, in fact, the argument is that such an approach substantially opens up the study of culture.

Throughout this paper, I have been arguing that it is time for the social sciences to respond to a naturalist realist approach to culture and cultural evolution. A more accurate picture of culture does not overshadow its biological basis. A more accurate picture of culture represents the relational aspects of culture and biology. Darwinian conceptual tools from evolutionary biology provide a solid theoretical groundwork, conceptual clarity, and useful generalizations when it comes to providing a better understanding of complex human behavior. Important to add here is that this is a unifying approach, one that does not reduce the study of culture to genes. Rather, in many ways it extends the study of culture, showing just how important culture is in human society, and more profoundly, how important culture is in the history of human evolution, and its future direction.


For example, see documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car.

While major debates between Duhem-Quine’s coherentism and Popper’s ideas on falsification exist.

Mathematical formulism, as borrowed from population genetics, game theory, and economics, is also an important aspect of Richerson and Boyd’s work (2006: p. 95).


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