Tim Lewens, Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges

Tim Lewens, Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 224 pp. £25.00 Hb. ISBN: 9870199674183

As a leading Darwin scholar, Tim Lewens is admirably qualified to produce a useful work on the knotty problems of cultural evolution. In this book Lewens guides us through the various arguments on evolutionary approaches to cultural change, attempting to steer between what one might be tempted to regard as the Scylla of psychological and biological thinking, whose protagonists are keen to extend evolutionary theory to cultural change, and the Charybdis of sociological and historical disciplines, whose protagonists are not. Lewens’s aim appears to be less an attempt to persuade us to one view or other as a philosophy of nature, and more a call to arms. We need to engage with debates over cultural evolution, understand their limitations and use the tools of cultural evolutionary thinking to explore whether a framework for unifying the biological and social sciences might be feasible.

The book commences with a discussion of Cultural Evolutionary Theory (CET) in terms of historical, selectionist and kinetic approaches. The historical approach attempts to understand how various forces change earlier states into later states; cultures obviously have histories. However the historical approach does not offer the means to understand contemporary debates over culture. The selectionist approach holds that natural selection can act in cultures as a much as it can in biological evolution, while the kinetic approach, acknowledging that cultures change, suggests that we do not have to stick to Darwin as learning allows cultures to change quickly without the attrition rates of natural selection.

Darwin took a historical approach when he spoke of cultural change, although he did not appear to make a strong attempt to project natural selection into the social world, but the selectionist and kinetic approaches take Darwinism beyond Darwin into the realm of cultural change. Of these two, Lewens argues that kinetic theory is more promising than the selectionist approach as it is more general and shows more promise: ‘this is the evolutionary approach likely to have the greatest pragmatic pay-off’ (43). Arguably, one can build models of cultural evolution, as some have done, without reference to cultural selection. At this point memes as cultural replicators, analogous to genes as biological replicators, à la Dawkins, rear their heads (26). While some have vigorously argued against the passivity that memes imply in the evolution of culture, Lewens argues that it is possible to develop a model of cultural evolution which acknowledges human beings as active choosers.

To tackle the question of what culture is, Chapter Three addresses the concept of culture as information which can be acquired from others via language, imitation and so on. Informational theories have become immensely popular across a spectrum of academic disciplines in recent years; one only has to think of current research on information ethics and the way that artificial intelligence is once more enjoying a resurgence of interest. Cultural information is not just stored in people’s heads, it is to be found in artefacts e.g. pots and church architecture (58). It is also to be found in bodies and this signals one of the difficulties of a ‘culture as information’ approach for those of a more historical and sociological persuasion. Even when the welcome exception of the 'milking a cow' example (59) is duly acknowledged, the danger is that ‘culture as information’ can take on a distinctly disembodied quality.

The following two chapters focus on human nature, in theory and then in practice. Human nature is dangerous; it is all too easy to tumble into the deep pit of essentialism. Lewens acknowledges that human nature is usually the province of the evolutionary psychologist rather than the cultural evolutionist; indeed one of the most influential cultural evolutionists (Richerson) has exhorted other evolutionary thinkers to stop using the concept of human nature (62). Even though Lewens finds ‘proposals for respectable accounts of human nature’ reasonable (78), he suggests their reasonableness is illusory, arguing that there are neither theoretical nor practical reasons to claim that human nature consists of the traits that appear to be widely found in it. Lewens does not allude to the very telling criticisms of the concept of human nature which have been made by feminist philosophers, especially proponents of feminist epistemology, and by theorists of race and disability, who have argued that what are usually taken to be natural traits have, historically, mapped onto the traits of white, Western men. This must surely be the most important concern for debates on human nature but it does not seem to figure in cultural evolutionary discussions of whatever stripe. Even if Lewens does not tackle issues of power in the way that feminist philosophers would like, he does highlight the critiques of CET made by Richard Lewontin who has argued that kinetic theory cannot deal with issues of power as it aggregates the interactions of individuals ignoring centralized control over cultural change (132). Power as a relationship between individuals has insufficient explanatory capacity, rather it is organisations and social groups which form the locus of power.

The final chapters deal with cultural adaptanionism and emotions. Cultural processes can affect the development of emotions. Lewens acknowledges that not all cultural knowledge is stored in the head ‘some may instead be contained within embodied emotional states’ (183). Although this position is not developed it appears to throw a line to, or at least open the possibility of dialogue with feminist and other theorists who emphasise the importance of affect in embodied human experience. Notably, Sara Ahmed has argued that emotions can be seen as cultural practices rather than elements of individual psychology. Lewens emphasizes that evolutionary models will not replace social science and history, rather contends that ‘their assumptions will be deferential to the deliveries of these more traditional approaches’ (183).

This wide ranging and clearly written book offers a comprehensive review of CET and exhorts us to see beyond the dichotomous distinctions between nature and culture, biology and culture and the universal and the cultural to ‘show how the natural and social sciences might ultimately be knitted back together’ (183). The knitting will be all the richer if we can find ways of including the arguments of the disadvantaged and ignored.

Alison Adam, Sheffield Hallam University