SYMPOSIUM ON THE QUESTION “HOW IS CULTURE BIOLOGICAL?”
Six Essays and Discussions: Essay # 1 by Steve Moxon
Culture IS Biology:
Why We Cannot ‘Transcend’ Our Genes — Or Ourselves
Politics & Society (journal) April 2010
Steve Moxon is an independent cross-disciplinary researcher centred on evolutionary bases of social-system, with a special interest in the sexes. In his most recent book, The Woman Racket, he argues that a scientific understanding of men/women and of sex and the sexes across biology contravenes the conceptual forms that usually define current polemics.
AbstractCulture, far from being some new trajectory of evolution (and, as posited by niche-construction theory, even a major new source of selection pressure), is evolved social psychology in action, feeding back to reinforce it. We become actually ever better at expressing our genes in evolving greater flexibility: the very opposite of the freedom Daniel Dennett contends evolves. Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins likewise hold profoundly mistaken positions that we “transcend” our genes. A much more radical bottom-up conceptualisation of the social sciences is required; with psychology and sociology subsumed under systems-biology. Responses by Joseph Carroll and Ian Roberts Rejoinder by Steve Moxon Culture (whether human or of other species) is the manifestation of evolved psychology; and given that this is the product of the biological structure that is the brain, then culture is biology. This might seem banal but for the observation that our behaviour within our cultures feeds back to reinforce the biology—optimising and making it more efficient. So it is that culture is very much a part of biology, not merely growing out of it to progress thereafter on an autonomous track. Such feedback necessarily takes place, or why would our facility to create culture have evolved? (Human culture hardly resembles a Gouldian “spandrel.”) The relationship between any organism and its social system necessarily is a “hall-of-mirrors” precluding novel trajectory, and not just in the short-term (as I will duly explain). Human culture is often, even usually regarded as being “above” biology because of extra-genetic modes of cross-generational transmission of cultural product, but an additional mode of transmission is of little consequence unless what is being transmitted is truly novel. For the above-mentioned reasons, it is not. We can see, then, that Edward O Wilson understated the reality when long ago he pointed out that culture is always “held on a leash”  from biology, never escaping it. Yet Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has most concerned himself with evolution, sees an actually weaker tie; substituting for Wilson’s leash an infinitely elastic cord. He believes, as in the title of his book-length exposition, that Freedom Evolves.  Certainly the facility to cognise and behave flexibly evolves; and given that this is instrumental to everything on which it is built, then it serves to make the human organism more efficient in interacting with its environment; not least with conspecifics. Consequently, biology and the genome encoding it, far from being usurped actually are still better expressed. In a non-trivial sense, therefore, we become ever more the slaves of our biology and our genes, just as we are provided with the illusion of being progressively freer of them. This fits within the overall trajectory of evolution: of a progressive increase in reproductive efficiency (which readily can be seen as the key contrast between humans and lowly classes such as bacteria). As a philosopher Dennett should know all too well that increasing flexibility of cognition and behaviour is the only meaningful sense of freedom that an individual organism can experience. Instead, he makes the leap to join Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker in putting forward the line that somehow through our culture and our higher cognition we can (and do) “transcend our genes” (my paraphrase) and thereby our biology. Indeed, it amounts to a claim that somehow we “transcend” ourselves, which self-evidently is nonsensical. It’s a bizarre position for arguably our three most eminent evolutionary thinkers to adopt. This is especially true of Steven Pinker, who, as the author of the book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,  should be more keenly aware than anyone of the fallacy of placing humanity above nature. However, it is the usual view, notably shared by those who espouse any of the various ideologies of our culture. According to the philosopher, John Gray,  the various humanist ideologies in lauding mankind all betray how we are unwittingly saddled with the residue of Christian thinking; no parallel, he argues, being evident outside of Western culture. The “promised land” of Christian teleology, Gray sees as having secularised into an unacknowledged supposed causal agent pulling us towards some sort of utopia; in the process problematising “free will.” Gray singles out the philosopher of our illustrious trio: “Dennett … has spent much of his career labouring to show how scientific materialism can be reconciled with a form of free will—a project that would scarcely occur to someone from a culture not moulded by Christianity.” The Dawkins/Pinker/Dennett axis is backwards, resting on the notion of “emergence”; that the philosopher Mark Bedau  sees as unnecessarily opening up a great explanatory gulf with lower-level processes (“emergence” likely being another case of problematising by philosophers). Their position, as I will outline, falls foul of systems-biology, the most basic understanding of the concept and theory of information, and contemporary evolution theory itself. Steven Pinker memorably quipped that “If my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.” He was alluding to his decision not to spread his genes by reproducing. I challenged him on this from the floor at a symposium at the LSE in London. Surely an eminent evolutionary psychologist must well know that in this regard human motivation—that of the human male, clearly—is a proxy one of desiring sex, not desiring to reproduce per se; and that the use of modern contraceptive technology actually facilitates sexual activity? Doesn’t making professor, never mind such an eminent one, considerably increase appeal to women, both as a marriage and an extra-pair sex partner? The Harvard professor has never said anything about eschewing sex, and the highly competitive behaviour of males with others of their own sex is (as Professor Roy Baumeister has outlined ) the key sex difference. Males compete for status in order to be selected by females, and therefore such competition is the principal instrumental behaviour to what Pinker claims he has in himself usurped—but which in any case he has not, having merely confused reproduction with sex. I didn’t get an answer. Just a very long empty stare into the aisle between the two halves of the audience seating until the chairman moved on the discussion. Steven Pinker surely realises that far from adopting what he took to be a culturally derived imperative to replace how he would otherwise behave, instead he has been subject all along to the inter-related set of motivations we all share irrespective of the culture in which we happen to live. Does he imagine he can import into his brain a novel motivation? From where in the environment would this come from other than the mirror of evolved social psychology that is our culture; that is hardly likely, therefore, to throw up something new? And how does the professor envisage the motivational-set within his brain reacting other than by subsuming any such hypothetical import to further its own ends? The failure of understanding by Pinker here goes deep, resting on a false schematic of the brain. And inasmuch as this reveals general truths about system and level that are applicable to the relationship between the organism and culture, then it is illuminating here to outline. The author of How the Mind Works reveals a Cartesian dualist position in that very title, and evidently believes that he can control the rest of his “mind”—I will use the more appropriate term, “brain”—through certain higher-cognitive neural processing in his cerebral cortex. The truth is that the brain has evolved successive layers that function instrumentally to the layers below them, with the whole behaving as one system driven (in terms of initiating alertness) from the brainstem. There is no control centre. The cerebral cortex facilitates complex integration of neural processing, incorporating sensory data from interacting with the environment, serving to modify behaviour so that it becomes more complex and indirect, the better to ensure the completion of motivation-behaviour loops. This does not mean that there is a locus of control within the cerebral cortex. Indeed, if we insist on any such identification, we would have to point to the afore-mentioned brainstem along with some other phylogenetically ancient structures associated with basic emotions; emotions being a visceral translation of basic motivation. Motivation does not arise in the cerebral cortex. Here arises merely neural integration that may contribute to the brain acting according to one or more key motivations over one or more others. Our motivations, in functioning as a suite, at any one point in time feature one or more to the fore. If we are not being self-goaded to behave directly to bring about sexual intercourse and consequent reproduction, then we are being self-goaded to behave in some way instrumental to this eventuality. There is no “debating chamber” within the brain where some brain within the brain weighs up competing demands, as we imagine our conscious “mind” to be. What we call consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the integration of neural processing: the brain as a whole experiencing, after a delay, facets of its own working. This simplest schematic of the brain showing the necessary relationship of parts to the whole as a system, and one that ultimately is “bottom-up” rather than “top-down”, is a contemporary systems-biology approach.  The causation is not circular as might be supposed—“developmental systems theory” posits circularity, but the theory fails through confounding development and evolution.  We falsely intuit downward-causation for obvious reasons, and have less trouble seeing upward-causation when we move away from the “conscious mind” and culture to the sub-organismic “major evolutionary transitions.” Just as the application of a simple systems-biology perspective gives us a better overall view of how the brain works, it similarly improves our understanding of individual organisms vis-a-vis their social systems and cultural products. Richard Dawkins takes a similar line to Pinker, famously writing that “we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish-replicators” . Dawkins would consider himself merely the “vehicle” for his genes, yet here he imagines he can drive off on some novel trajectory without genes being at root the navigation. From his own gene-centric theory, Dawkins would argue that the “vehicle” (or “interactor”, as some term it) is not primary because it is not the “replicator.” The counter to this view is, of course, that the “vehicle”/”interactor” is the entity that is “visible” to selection. And the chicken-and-egg issue of gene/organism is clouded by the recent systems-biology understanding of the gene as the gene-protein-cell complex.  But the gene-centric perspective is all-conquering in “population genetics.” This is the way we need to look at the gene. Not in a simplistic abstract model of isolated genetic change at a snapshot in time within an infinite-sized gene pool, but collectively within the reality of the finite-sized, usually small reproductive group over time. This really does bring the social group into biology: through selection acting across different time-scales enabling the evolution of “policing” mechanisms against “selfish” traits, in what is termed “lineage selection.” Leonard Nunney writes:
Lineage selection does not alter the fitness relationships of the traits; instead, it exploits variation in the genetic architecture of lineages to minimize the occurrence of the trait that is advantageous in the short term but disadvantageous in the long term. … Lineage selection reduces the likelihood of cheating over the long term provided lineages that give rise to cheats at a low frequency are more successful over the long term than are lineages that give rise to cheats at a high frequency.The evolving of “policing” of “selfish” traits in this manner potentially could become so complete that all selection at the level of the individual ceases, and selection changes from within- to between-group,  so that we get group-selection as it is properly defined , as happened to create the “major evolutionary transitions.”  But as for the particular “particle”-”collective” relationship of organisms to the social group, this is extremely rare. It is thought that only eusocial insect species—and only one or two even of these—could fit the bill. In social systems, almost always selection operates on the organismic level to produce adaptation that is considered to be at most a “cross-level by-product” . There is no “super-organism” in higher-animals. So it is that in studying even complex multi-tiered nested sociality in higher animals, Dawn Kitchen & Craig Packer  conclude: “Finally, we could find no compelling evidence that a vertebrate social system ever exceeds the sum of its parts … The most elaborate social systems … only require an ability to recognise a large number of individuals (rather than any form of group-level cognition). … we see no reason to invoke anything beyond a simple set of individual decision rules.” They see no such thing as “group mind.” Its absence is very apparent in computer modelling of dominance hierarchy formation,  which occurs by self-organisation given nothing more than the shared neural capacity of individuals to process what are known as “winner” and/or “loser” effects—the biasing of likelihood to contest in future based on the outcome of previous contests. The upshot is that in higher animals generally, not just for humans, there is no supra-individual entity, let alone an autonomous one. The notion that culture is “above” biology looks terminally ill from whichever angle you look. The sort of paucity of understanding exhibited by Dawkins/Pinker/Dennett reaches its apotheosis in “niche-construction”:  the recent theory that culture is a niche we create that becomes the major locus of selection pressure on the human genome—and, supposedly, a new form of selection to boot. This is held to explain the considerable recent evolution of human genes,  much of which is expressed within the brain. But rather than being the result of selection pressure from any human-created “niche,” this is likely the result of sexual selection. It is axiomatic in biology that rapid selection is caused by sexual rather than natural selection, and human higher cognition surely is under inexorable selection pressure to further integrate in the service of producing art and good conversation for courtship purposes. This is the basis of Geoffrey Miller’s “mating intelligence” theory:  that integrated higher-cognition is the perfect basis of signalling male mate-value given the susceptibility of the highly complex inter-related genetic coding involved to produce non-optimal or dysfunctionality (as in schizophrenia ). “Niche-construction” theory is also a profound failure to comprehend basic information theory, as Tom Dickins has outlined.  The brain receives as input only that for which it has been specifically prepared to look. Inasmuch as it responds to environmental variability, this is contingent according to presets that have evolved in anticipation. The brain imposes models on the environment to suit its purposes; it is not the case that the environment somehow imposes itself on the brain. Furthermore, Dickins shows that “niche-construction” theory is nothing less than a failure to understand the rudiments of contemporary evolution theory itself, in its positing a new form of selection that is in fact simply a re-statement of natural selection. And Dawkins points out —with the full backing of the European Science Foundation —that the theory is simply a re-statement of his long-held notion of “the extended phenotype.” The emptiness of “niche construction” theory is shown by its inapplicability. Attempts to find support for it in contradicting the tenet of “adaptive lag” (the oft cited point that the human genome has not had sufficient time to significantly evolve since the Pleistocene) end in the sole regularly cited adaptation of the very minor physiological change that extends lactose tolerance from infancy into adulthood. No adaptation that in any way significantly changes human psychology has even been suggested. Evidently the scaling up of social group size has not required any psychological adaptation that was not already present. [This is hardly unexpected given that the key ability to form nested hierarchy is phylogenetically quite ancient, being exhibited by Cetaceans.] “Niche-construction” theory is not only a mess of theoretical wrong-headedness, but it is in dire need of a reason as to why it was ever formulated. Any view, such as “niche-construction,” of the supposed primacy of culture, contradicts the mature “bottom-up” understanding provided by systems-biology, in merely assuming downward-causation on no basis other than the implicit acceptance of Durkheim’s groundless assertion that there are irreducible “social facts,” when all the evidence converges on culture being part of biology. There is perhaps too much of a tendency within science to seek consensus at the expense of the bold “kite-flying” needed to spur and make real progress. We can see this in the often stifling peer review process (and even at a symposium to celebrate the extension of the Darwinian revolution to the social sciences). Given our Western ideological bent that Gray identifies—which is the root of the dead hand of the post-modern [sic] imperative not to “privilege,” that appears to extend to scientific paradigm—it is natural that we should feel churlish not to attempt to build bridges with social scientists recoiling from the impending subsummation of their disciplines under biology. [We’ve seen the war in university anthropology departments as ascendant biology has riven them into biological and cultural halves.] But biological/ evolutionary approaches can’t be in bed with the old “top-down” paradigms of the social sciences, amounting as they do to little more than repositories of tired ideology. They are expressions of some of the very distortions of cognition and behaviour that form evidence for adaptation that biological/ evolutionary models cite. To a future of a lead from biology / evolution theory in all disciplines involved in the study of culture that currently work “top-down,” we might all raise our glasses, toasting “bottoms-up!”