Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

2. The history of cultural selection theory

2.1 Evolutionism

Lamarck and Darwin

The idea of cultural selection first arose in victorian England - a culture that had more success in the process of cultural selection than any other society. But before we talk about this theory we must take a look at the theory of biological evolution, founded by Lamarck and Darwin.

The french biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck was the first to talk about the evolution of species. He believed that an animal, which has acquired a beneficial trait or ability by learning, is able to transmit this acquired trait to its offspring (Lamarck 1809). The idea that acquired traits can be inherited is called lamarckism after him. Half a century later the english biologist Charles Darwin published the famous book "On the origin of Species" in which he rejected Lamarck's hypothesis and put forward the theory that the evolution of species happens by a combination of variation, selection, and reproduction.

It was a big problem for the evolutionary thinkers of that time that they did not know the laws of inheritance. Indeed the austrian monk Gregor Mendel at around the same time was carrying out a series of experiments, which led him to those laws of inheritance that today carry his name and constitute the foundation of modern genetics, but the important works of Mendel did not become generally known until the beginning of the twentieth century, and were thus unknown to nineteenth century british philosophers. They knew nothing about genes or mutations, and consequently Darwin was unable to explain where the random variations came from. As a consequence of the criticism against his theory Darwin had to revise his Origin of Species and assume that acquired traits can be inherited, and that this was the basis of the variation that was necessary for natural selection to be possible (Darwin 1869, 1871). In 1875 the german biologist August Weismann published a series of experiments that disproved the theory that acquired traits can be inherited. His book, which was translated into english in 1880-82, caused lamarckism to lose many of its adherents.


Although Darwin had evaded the question of the descent of man in his first book it was fairly obvious that the principle of natural selection could apply to human evolution. At that time no distinction was drawn between race and culture, and hence the evolution from the savage condition to modern civilized society came to be described in darwinian terms. The earliest example of such a description is an essay by the british economist Walter Bagehot in The Fortnightly in 1867. Bagehot imagined that the earliest humans were without any kind of organization, and he described how social organization might have originated:

"But when once polities were begun, there is no difficulty in explaining why they lasted. Whatever may be said against the principle of 'natural selection' in other departments, there is no doubt of its predominance in early human history. The strongest killed out the weakest, as they could. And I need not pause to prove that any form of polity is more efficient than none; that an aggregate of families owning even a slippery allegiance to a single head, would be sure to have the better of a set of families acknowledging no obedience to anyone, but scattering loose about the world and fighting where they stood. [...] What is there requisite is a single government - call it Church or State, as you like - regulating the whole of human life. [...] The object of such organizations is to create what may be called a cake of custom."

When we look at this citation with contemporary eyes, it seems like a clear example of cultural selection: The best organized groups vanquished the poorly organized groups. But in Bagehot's frame of reference the concept of cultural selection hardly had any meaning. As a consequence of lamarckism no distinction was drawn between social and organic inheritance. Nineteenth century thinkers believed that customs, habits, and beliefs would precipitate in the nervous tissue within a few generations and become part of our innate dispositions. As no distinction was drawn between race and culture, social evolution was regarded as racial evolution. Initially Bagehot regarded his model for human evolution as analogous with, but not identical to, Darwin's theory - not because of the difference between social and organic inheritance, but because of the difference between humans and animals. Bagehot did not appreciate that humans and animals have a common descent. He even discussed whether the different human races have each their own Adam and Eve (Bagehot 1869). He did, of course, revise his opinions in 1871 when Darwin published The Descent of Man.

Despite these complications, I do consider Bagehot important for the theory of cultural selection because he focuses on customs, habits, beliefs, political systems and other features which today are regarded as essential parts of culture, rather than physical traits which today we mainly attribute to organic inheritance. It is important for his theory that customs etc. can be transmitted not only from parent to child, but also from one family to another. When one people defeats another people in war and conquers their land, then the victor’s art of war will also be transferred to or imitated by the defeated people, so that an ever stronger art of war will spread. Interestingly, unlike later philosophers, Bagehot does not regard this natural evolution as necessarily beneficial: It favors strength in war, but not necessarily other skills (Bagehot 1868).


The anthropologist Edward B. Tylor has had a significant influence on evolutionary thought and on the very concept of culture. The idea that modern civilized society has arisen by a gradual evolution from more primitive societies is primarily attributed to Tylor. The predominant view at that time was that savages and barbarian peoples had come into being by a degeneration of civilized societies. Tylor's books contain a comprehensive description of customs, techniques and beliefs in different cultures, and how these have changed. He discusses how similarities between cultures can be due to either diffusion or parallel independent evolution. Darwin's theory about natural selection is not explicitly mentioned, but he is no doubt inspired by Darwin, as is obvious from the following citation:

"History within its proper field, and ethnography over a wider range, combine to show that the institutions which can best hold their own in the world gradually supersede the less fit ones, and that this incessant conflict determines the general resultant course of culture." (Tylor 1871, vol. 1:68-69).

Tylor was close to describing the principle of cultural selection as early as 1865, i.e. before the abovementioned publications by Bagehot:

"On the other hand, though arts which flourish in times of great refinement or luxury, and complex processes which require a combination of skill or labour hard to get together and liable to be easily disarranged, may often degenerate, yet the more homely and useful the art, and the less difficult the conditions for its exercise, the less likely it is to disappear from the world, unless when superseded by some better device." (Tylor 1865:373).

While Darwin was dealing with the survival of the fittest, Tylor was more concerned with the survival of the unfit. The existence of outdated institutions and customs, which no longer had any usefulness, were Tylor's best proof that modern society had evolved from a more primitive condition. Tylor's attitude towards darwinism seem to have been rather ambivalent, since his only reference to Darwin is the following enigmatic statement in the preface to the second edition of his principal work Primitive Culture:

"It may have struck some readers as an omission, that in a work on civilization insisting so strenuously on a theory of development or evolution, mention should scarcely have been made or Mr. Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose influence on the whole course of modern thought on such subjects should not be left without formal recognition. This absence of particular reference is accounted for by the present work, arranged on its own lines, coming scarcely into contact of detail with the previous works of these eminent philosophers." (Tylor 1873).

This ambiguity has led to disagreement among historians of ideas about Tylor's relationship to darwinism. Greta Jones (1980:20), for example, writes that Tylor dissociated himself from darwinism, whereas Opler (1965) goes to great lengths to demonstrate darwinian tendencies in Tylor's Primitive Culture, and even categorizes Tylor as cultural darwinist. This categorization is a considerable exaggeration since Tylor did not have any coherent theory of causation (Harris 1969, p. 212). A central issue has been whether nineteenth century evolutionary thinkers were racist or not, i.e. whether they attributed the supremacy of civilized peoples to organic inheritance or culture. This controversy is meaningless, however, because no clear distinction was drawn at that time between organic and social inheritance. Tylor used the word race synonymously with culture or tribe, as did most of his contemporaries.


As early as 1852, before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, the prominent english philosopher Herbert Spencer described the principle that the most fit individuals survive while the less fit die in the struggle for existence. This principle initially had only an inferior importance in Spencer's evolutionary philosophy, which was based on the idea that all kinds of evolutions follow the same fundamental principles. The Universe, the Earth, the species, the individuals, and society all evolve by the same pattern and in the same direction, according to Spencer, namely towards ever more differentiation and equilibrium. It was all part of one and the same process:

"... there are not several kinds of Evolution having certain traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner." (Spencer, H. 1862).

In 1857, only two years before Darwin's book about the origin of species, Spencer described the cause of this evolution as "that ultimate mystery which must ever transcend human intelligence". (Spencer, H. 1857).

The evolution of societies is going through four stages, according to Spencer: Out of the unorganized savage condition came the first barbarian societies of nomads and herders. These have later been united into towns and nation states, called militant societies. The last stage in the evolution is called the industrial society, which will continue to evolve towards equilibrium, zero growth, peace and harmony.

Social evolution is primarily determined by external factors, such as climate, fertility of the soil, vegetation, fauna, and the basic characteristics of the humans themselves. Secondary factors include modifications imposed by the humans on their environment, themselves, and their society, as well as interaction with other societies. The main driving force in this evolution is population growth. The continued increase in population necessitates ever more effective food production methods, and hence an increasing degree of organization, division of labor, and technological progress.

War plays a significant role in the transition from the barbarian to the militant society. Any war or threat of war necessitates the formation of alliances and establishment of a strong central government. The militant society is therefore characterized by a strong monopoly of power to which the population must submit. The end result of a war is often the fusion of two societies into one bigger society, whereby the two cultures get mixed and the best aspects from each culture is preserved. This creation of bigger and bigger states makes possible the last step in Spencer's evolutionary scheme: industrialization. The rigid and totalitarian central government is still an impediment to industrialization because it obstructs private economic initiatives and scientific progress. The militant society will therefore in times of peace move towards more individual freedom and democracy, and hence become what Spencer calls the industrial society (Spencer, H. 1873, 1876).

Charles Darwin's book about the origin of species exerted an important influence on Spencer's philosophy, although he never totally rejected lamarckism. The principle of the survival of the fittest is only applicable to the evolution of the species and societies, not to the evolution of the Earth or the Universe, and neither to the ontogenetic development of the individual. The principle of natural selection could therefore not acquire the same central position in Spencer's evolutionary thought that it had in Darwin's.

Spencer applied the principle of the survival of the fittest to the formation of the first primitive societies in the same way as Bagehot did:

"... this formation of larger societies by the union of smaller ones in war, and this destruction or absorption of the smaller un-united societies by the united larger ones, is an inevitable process through which the varieties of men most adapted for social life, supplant the less adapted varieties." (Spencer, H. 1893)

Just like Bagehot and Tylor, Spencer hardly distinguished between social and organic inheritance. It is therefore difficult to decide whether the above citation refers to genetic or cultural selection. Spencer does, however, apply the principle of natural selection to phenomena which from a contemporary point of view can only be regarded as social heritage. Spencer describes the origin of religion in this way:

"If we consider that habitually the chief or ruler, propitiation of whose ghost originates a local cult, acquired his position through successes of one or other kind, we must infer that obedience to the commands emanating from him, and maintenance of the usages he initiated, is, on the average of cases, conducive to social prosperity so long as conditions remain the same; and that therefore this intense conservatism of ecclesiastical institutions is not without a justification. Even irrespective of the relative fitness of the inherited cult to the inherited social circumstances, there is an advantage in, if not indeed a necessity for, acceptance of traditional beliefs, and consequent conformity to the resulting customs and rules." (Spencer, H. 1896).

The principle of the survival of the fittest can obviously lead to a philosophy of the right of the superior forces, i.e. a laissez faire-policy. To Spencer this principle applied primarily to the individual. He was against any kind of social policy for the benefit of the poor and weak individuals. Spencer was a leading advocate of "competitive individualism" in economic and social matters (Jones, G. 1980). He does not see egoism and altruism as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin. Whoever wants the best for himself also wants the best for society because he is part of society, and egoism thereby becomes an important driving force in the evolution of society (Spencer, H. 1876).

Spencer did not, however, support laissez faire-policy when it came to international wars (Schallberger 1980). He was very critical of Britain's increasing militarization and imperialism which he saw as an evolutionary retrogression. He also warned about the fact that in modern society it is mostly the strongest men who go to war and die, whereas the weakest remain back and reproduce. Persistent optimist that he was, Spencer still believed that wars were a transitory stage in human evolutionary history:

"But as there arise higher societies, implying individual characters fitted for closer co-operation, the destructive activities exercised by such higher societies have injurious re-active effects on the moral natures of their members - injurious effects which outweigh the benefits resulting from extirpation of inferior races. After this stage has been reached, the purifying process, continuing still an important one, remains to be carried on by industrial war - by a competition of societies during which the best, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, spread most, and leave the least capable to disappear gradually, from failing to leave a sufficiently-numerous posterity." (Spencer, H. 1873).

Spencer's theories have first and foremost been criticized for the paradox that the free rein of the superior forces should lead to harmony. He denied the disadvantages of the capitalist society in order to be able to maintain his a priori belief that evolution is the same as progress, said his opponents. It is said, that Spencer in his older days became more disillusioned and began to realize this problem (Schallberger 1980).


The french historian of literature Ferdinand Brunetière was inspired by Darwin's evolutionary theory, and thought that literature and other arts evolved according to a set of rules which were analogous to, but not identical to, the rules that govern biological evolution:

"Et, dès à présent, si l'apparition de certaines espèces, en un point donné de l'espace et du temps, a pour effet de causer la disparation de certaines autres espèces; ou encore, s'il est vrai que la lutte pour la vie ne soit jamais plus âpre qu'entre espèces voisines, les exemples ne s'offrent-ils pas en foule pour nous rappeler qu'il n'en est pas autrement dans l'histoire de la littérature et de l'art?" (Brunetière 1890).

Although the concept of cultural inheritance is not explicitly mentioned by Brunetière, he does undeniably distinguish between race and culture. He says that the evolution of literature and art depend on race as well as on environment, social and historical conditions, and individual factors2. Furthermore, he does distinguish between evolution and progress.


The first to give a precise formulation of cultural selection theory was Leslie Stephen. In his book The science of ethics (1882) he draws a clear distinction between social and organic evolution, and explains the difference between these two processes by examples such as the following:

"Improved artillery, like improved teeth, will enable the group to which it belongs to extirpate or subdue its competitors. But in another respect there is an obvious difference. For the improved teeth belong only to the individuals in whom they appear and to the descendants to whom they are transmitted by inheritance; but the improved artillery may be adopted by a group of individuals who form a continuous society with the original inventor. The invention by one is thus in certain respects an invention by all, though the laws according to which it spreads will of course be highly complex."

The distinction between cultural and organic evolution is important to Stephen because the organic evolution is so slow that it has no relevance in social science. Stephen also discusses what the unit of selection is. In primitive tribal wars it may be an entire tribe that is extinguished and replaced by another tribe with a more effective art of war; but in modern wars between civilized states it is rather one political system winning over another, while the greater part of the defeated people survive. Ideas, too, can be selected in a process which does not depend on the birth and death of people. Stephen is thus aware that different phenomena spread by different mechanisms, as we can see from the following citation:

"Beliefs which give greater power to their holders have so far a greater chance of spreading as pernicious beliefs would disappear by facilitating the disappearance of their holders. This, however, expresses what we may call a governing or regulative condition, and does not give the immediate law of diffusion. A theory spreads from one brain to another in so far as one man is able to convince another, which is a direct process, whatever its ultimate nature, and has its own laws underlying the general condition which determines the ultimate survival of different systems of opinion." (Stephen 1882).

Leslie Stephen's brilliant theories of cultural evolution have largely been ignored and seem to have had no influence on later philosophers. Benjamin Kidd's work "Social Evolution" from 1894, for instance, does not mention cultural selection.


Benjamin Kidd was inspired by both Marx and Spencer (mostly Spencer) but criticized both. It may seem as if he tried to strike the golden mean. He granted to the marxists that the members of the ruling class were not superior. He believed that the ruling families were degenerating so that new rulers had to be recruited from below. He was therefore against privileges. He denied the innate intellectual superiority of the white race, which he ascribed to social heritage, by which he meant accumulated knowledge. On the other hand he agreed with the racists that the english race was superior when it came to "social efficiency", by which he meant the ability to organize and to suppress egoistic instincts to the benefit of the community and the future. Kidd attributed this altruism to the religious instinct. Curious as it may seem, he explained the evolution of religion by natural selection of the strongest race on the basis of organic inheritance. Although Kidd refers to Leslie Stephen in other contexts, he never mentions selection based on social heritage. As a consequence of Weismann's rejection of lamarckism, Kidd saw an eternal competition as necessary for the continued evolution of the race. He therefore rejected socialism, which he believed would lead to degeneration.


2.2 Social darwinism

The difficulty in distinguishing between social and organic inheritance continued until well after world war I. The mass psychologist William McDougall, for example, described the selection of populations on the basis of religion, military strength, or economical competence, without talking about social inheritance. These characters were in McDougall's understanding based on inborn dispositions in the different races (McDougall 1908, 1912).

This focus on natural selection and the survival of the fittest as the driving force in the evolution of society paved the way for a multitude of philosophies that glorified war and competition. The aryan race was regarded as superior to all other races, and the proofs were seen everywhere: australians, maoris, red indians, and negroes - everybody succumbed in the competition with the white man.

The term social darwinism was introduced in 1885 by Spencer's opponents and has since then been applied to any social philosophy based on darwinism (Bannister 1979). The definition of this term has been lax and varying, depending on what one wanted to include under this invective.

It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the expression "the survival of the fittest". Implicit in this formulation lies the assumption that fittest = best, i.e. the one who survives in the competition is the best. Only many years later was it realized that this expression is a tautology, because fitness is indeed defined as the ability to survive - hence: the survival of the survivor (Peters 1976).

An implicit determinism was also buried in Darwin's expression "natural selection". What was natural was also beneficial and desirable. Humans and human society was, in the worldview of the social darwinists, part of nature, and the concept of naturalness had then, as it has today, an almost magical appeal. Regarding man as part of nature must, in its logical consequence, mean that everything human is natural - nothing is unnatural. The concept of naturalness is therefore meaningless, but nobody seems to have realized that this was no objective category, but an arbitrary value-laden concept. By calling the evolution natural, you preclude yourself from choosing. Everything is left to the free reign of the superior forces. Nobody dared to break the order of nature, or to question the desirability of the natural selection. Evolution and progress were synonyms.

Social darwinism was used to justify all kinds of liberalism, imperialism, racism, nazism, fascism, eugenics, etc. I shall refrain from listing the numerous ideologies that social darwinism has fostered - many books have already been written on that subject - but merely remark that social darwinism was not rejected until the second world war had demonstrated the horrors to which this line of thought may lead.


The american sociologist Albert G. Keller criticized the previous social darwinists for basing their evolutionary theory on organic inheritance (1916). He rejected that acquired characteristics such as tradition and moral could be inherited by referring to Weismann.

Keller was inspired by Darwin's general formula for biological evolution: that the conjoined effect of variation, selection and reproduction leads to adaptation. By simple analogy he defined social variation, social selection, and social reproduction. Keller regarded this idea as his own. He did of course refer to several british social thinkers, including Spencer and Bagehot, but he interpreted their theories as based on organic inheritance. He had no knowledge of Leslie Stephen.

Keller's book is a systematic examination of the three factors: variation, selection, and reproduction, and hence the first thorough representation of cultural selection theory. Many years should pass before another equally exhaustive discussion of cultural selection was published. Keller described many different selection mechanisms. He used the term automatic selection to designate the outcome of conflicts. This could happen with or without bloodshed. The opposite of automatic selection was labeled rational selection, i.e. the result of rational decisions based on knowledge. Keller drew a clear distinction between biological and cultural selection and between biological and cultural fitness. He maintained that the two processes were in conflict with each other and would lead in different directions (Keller 1916). The social reproduction was carried by tradition, education, belief, and worship of ancestors. Religion was described as a very strong preserving and guiding force:

"Discipline was precisely what men needed in the childhood of the race and have continued to require ever since. Men must learn to control themselves. Though the regulative organization exercised considerable discipline, its agents were merely human; the chief had to sleep occasionally, could not be everywhere at once, and might be deceived and evaded. Not so the ghosts and spirits. The all-seeing daimonic eye was sleepless; no time or place was immune from its surveillance. Detection was sure. Further, the penalty inflicted was awesome. Granted that the chief might beat or maim or fine or kill, there were yet limits to what he could do. The spirits, on the other hand, could inflict strange agonies and frightful malformations and transformations. Their powers extended even beyond the grave and their resources for harm outran the liveliest imaginings [...] there is no doubt that its disciplinary value has superseeded all other compulsions to which mankind has ever been subject." (Sumner & Keller 1927).

Keller's criticism of social darwinism (1916) was purely scientific, not political, and he was an adherent of eugenics, which until the second world war was widely regarded as a progressive idea.


2.3 Functionalism

Spencer imagined society as an organism, where the different institutions are comparable with those organs in an organism that have similar functions. The government, for example, was regarded as analogous with a brain, and roads were paralleled with veins. This metaphor has been popular among later social scientists and led to a line of thought called functionalism. This theoretical school is concerned with analyzing what function different institutions have in society. Functionalism is therefore primarily a static theory, which seldom concerns itself with studying change. Even though evolutionism was strongly criticized in this period, there was no fundamental contradiction between evolutionism and functionalism, and some outstanding functionalists have expressed regret that evolutionism was unpopular:

"Evolutionism is at present rather unfashionable. Nevertheless, its main assumptions are not only valid, but also they are indispensible to the field-worker as well as to the student of theory." (Malinowski 1944).

Functionalists defended their lack of interest in evolutionary theory by claiming that a structural and functional analysis of society must precede any evolutionary analysis (Bock 1963). One of the most famous anthropologists Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown had the same view on evolutionism as his equally famous colleague Bronislaw Malinowski (Radcliffe-Brown 1952). He drew a distinction between different kinds of changes in a society: firstly, the fundamental changes in society as an adaptation to altered outer conditions; secondly, the adaptation of different social institutions to each other; and thirdly, the adaptation of individuals to these institutions. Radcliffe-Brown described these changes only in general terms as "adjustment" and "adaptation".

Malinowski, on the other hand, goes into more detail with evolutionary theory. A cultural phenomenon can, according to Malinowski, be introduced into a society either by innovation or by diffusion from another society. The maintenance of the phenomenon then depends on its influence on the fitness of the culture, or its "survival value". Malinowski attributes great importance to diffusion in this context. Since cultural phenomena, as opposed to genes, can be transmitted from one individual to another or from one society to another, then wars should not be necessary for the process of cultural evolution, according to Malinowski. A degenerating society can either be incorporated under a more effective society or adopt the institutions of the higher culture. This selection process will result in greater effectivity and improved life conditions (Malinowski 1944).

A synthesis between evolutionism and functionalism should certainly be possible, since the selection theory gives a possible connection between the function of a cultural institution and its origin. A functional institution will win over a less effective institution in the process of cultural selection (Dore 1961). Considering the domination of functionalist thought, it is no surprise that evolutionism got a renaissance from about 1950.


2.4 Neo-evolutionism

The name "neo-evolutionism" implies that this is something new, which is somewhat misleading. Some neo-evolutionists rejected this term and called their science "plain old evolutionism" - and so it was! (Sahlins & Service 1960, p. 4). The tradition from Spencer and Tylor was continued without much novel thinking. The neo-evolutionists focused on describing the evolution of societies through a number of stages, finding similarities between parallel evolutionary processes, and finding a common formula for the direction of evolution. One important difference from nineteenth century evolutionism was that the laws of biological inheritance now were known to everyone. No one could carry on with confusing genetic and social inheritance, and a clear distinction was drawn between racial and social evolution. Theories were no longer racist, and the old social darwinism was rejected.

Whereas genetic inheritance can only go from parent to child, the cultural heritage can be transmitted in all directions, even between unrelated peoples. The neo-evolutionists therefore found diffusion important. They realized that a culture can die without the people carrying that culture being extinguished. In other words, the cultural evolution does not, unlike the genetic evolution, depend on the birth and death of individuals (Childe 1951).

An important consequence of diffusion is convergence. In prehistoric primitive societies social evolution was divergent. Each tribe adapted specifically to its environment. But in modern society communication is so effective that diffusion plays a major role. All cultures move in the same direction because advantageous innovations spread from one society to another, hence convergence (Harding 1960, Mead 1964).

The neo-evolutionists considered it important to find a universal law describing the direction of evolution:

"To be an evolutionist, one must define a trend in evolution..." (Parsons 1966, p. 109)3.

And there were many suggestions to what this trend was. Childe (1951) maintained that the cultural evolution proceeded in the same direction as the biological evolution, and in fact had replaced the latter. As an example, he mentioned that we put on a fur coat when it is cold instead of developing a fur, as the animals do. Spencer had already characterized the direction of evolution by ever increasing complexity and integration, and this idea still had many adherents among the neo-evolutionists (Campbell 1965, Eder 1976).

To Leslie White (1949) integration meant a strong political control and ever greater political units. This integration was not a goal in itself but a means towards the true goal of evolution: the greatest possible and most effective utilization of energy. White argued in thermodynamic terminology for the view that the exploitation of energy was the universal measure of cultural evolution. He expressed this with the formula:

Energy x Technology ®  Culture

Talcott Parsons (1966), among others, characterized the direction of evolution as an ever growing accumulation of knowledge and an improvement of the adaptability of the humans (Sahlins 1960; Kaplan, D. 1960; Parsons 1966). Yehudi Cohen (1974) has listed several criteria which he summarizes as man's attempts to free himself from the limitations of his habitat. Zoologist Alfred Emerson defined the cultural evolution as increasing homeostasis (self-regulation). He was criticized for an all-embracing, imprecise, and value-laden use of this concept (Emerson 1956). The most all-encompassing definition of the direction of evolution is found in the writings of Margaret Mead (1964:161):

"Directionality, at any given period, is provided by the competitive status of cultural inventions of different types and the competitive status of the societies carrying them; the outcome of each such competition, as it involves irreversible change (for example, in the destruction of natural resources or an invention that makes obsolete an older invention), defines the directional path."

Such a tautology is so meaningless that one must wonder how the neo-evolutionists could maintain the claim that evolution follows a certain definable direction.

Characteristically, most neo-evolutionists used more energy on studying the course and direction of evolution than its fundamental mechanisms. Most were content with repeating the three elements in Darwin's general formula: variation, selection, and reproduction, without going into detail. In particular, there was surprisingly little attention to the process of selection. Hardly anyone cared to define the criteria that determined, which features were promoted by the cultural selection, and which were weeded out. They were satisfied with the general criterion: survival value. Still the tautology is haunting! Without the selection criterion they also missed any argument why the evolution should go in the claimed direction.

There was also a certain confusion over what the unit of selection was. Was it customs, which were selected, or was it the people bearing them? Or was it entire societies that were the objects of the selection process? Some thinkers failed to define any unit of selection at all. Many used the word invention (Childe 1936, 1951). Emerson (1956, 1965) had the idea that symbols in the cultural evolution were equivalent to genes in the biological evolution. Parsons (1966) mentioned several possible units of selection, and Mead presented the most complete list of possible units of selection:

"a single trait, a trait cluster, a functional complex, a total structure; a stage of complexity in energy use; a type of social organization" (Mead 1964).

A few scientists have given a reasonably detailed description of possible selection processes (Murdock 1956, Kaplan, D. 1960, Parsons 1966). The most comprehensive list of selection mechanisms is found in an often cited article by the social psychologist Donald Campbell (1965):

"Selective survival of complete social organizations, selective diffusion or borrowing between social groups, selective propagation of temporal variations, selective imitation of inter-individual variations, selective promotion to leadership and educational roles, rational selection."

Several philosophers found that human scientific knowledge evolves by the selection of hypotheses (Kuhn 1962, Popper 1972, Toulmin 1972, Hull 1988).

The german sociologist Klaus Eder has developed a model where the selection of cognitive structures, rather than mere knowledge, controls cultural evolution. Man's moral structuring of interactive behavior, systems of religious interpretations, and symbolic structuring of the social world, are important elements in the worldview, on which the social structure is based. According to Eder, mutations in this cognitive structure and selective rewarding of those moral innovations that improve society's problem solving capability and hence its ability to maintain itself, is what controls social evolution. Adaptation to the ecological conditions, and other internal conditions, are the most important factors in Eder's theory, whereas he attributes little significance to external factors, such as contact with other societies (Eder 1976).

The main criticism against nineteenth century evolutionism was that it did not distinguish between evolution and progress, and the theories were often called teleological. Another word, which was often used when criticizing evolutionism, was unilinearity. This referred to the idea that all societies were going through the same linear series of evolutionary stages. In other words: a universal determinism and a conception of parallel evolutionary courses. Twentieth century neo-evolutionists were busy countering this criticism by claiming that their theories were multilinear. They emphasized local differences between different societies due to different environments and life conditions. The claim about multilinearity was however somewhat misrepresenting since they still imagined a linear scale for measuring evolutionary level (See Steward 1955 for a discussion of these concepts).

In 1960 a new dichotomy was introduced in evolutionary theory: specific versus general evolution. Specific evolution denotes the specific adaptation of a species or a society to the local life conditions or to a particular niche. General evolution, on the other hand, meant an improved general ability to adapt. A species or a society with a high adaptability may outcompete a specifically adapted species or society, especially in a changing environment. In other cases, a specifically adapted species or society may survive in a certain niche (Sahlins & Service 1960). This dichotomy seemed to solve the confusion: general evolution was unilinear, while specific evolution was multilinear (White 1960).

Neo-evolutionism was mainly used for explaining the differences between industrialized countries and developing countries, and between past and present. The talk was mainly about fundamental principles, and rarely went into detail with the evolutionary history of specific cultures or specific historic occurrences. The explanatory power of the theories was usually limited to the obvious: that certain innovations spread because they are advantageous, whereas the unfavorable innovations are forgotten.

Contemporary social scientists are often eager to distance themselves from social evolutionism. Never the less, evolutionary thought is still prevalent in many areas of the social sciences, and evolutionist theories are still being published (e.g. Graber, R.B. 1995).


2.5 Diffusionism

Another research tradition, which for many years has been seen as an alternative to evolutionism, is diffusionism. This research tradition focuses on diffusion, rather than innovation, as an explanation for social change. Strictly speaking, the diffusionist representation involves the same three elements that evolutionism is based on: innovation, selection, and reproduction - but viewed from another standpoint. The difference between the two paradigms is that diffusionism focuses on the spatial dimension of reproduction, i.e. the geographical spread of a phenomenon, whereas evolutionism focuses on the time dimension of reproduction, i.e. the continued existence and maintenance of a phenomenon. Diffusionists regard innovation as a rare and unique occurrence, whereas evolutionists acknowledge the possibility that the same innovation can occur several times at different places independently. The concept of selection is rarely discussed by that name by the diffusionists, although they often work with concepts such as barriers to diffusion or differences in receptivity to new ideas (Ormrod 1992). Many diffusionists regard themselves as in opposition to evolutionism, without realizing that the difference between the two models is quantitative, rather than qualitative.

The first great scientist within diffusionism was the french sociologist Gabriel Tarde. He did not deny the theory of natural selection, but thought that this theory was a gross generalization which had been ascribed more importance than its explanatory power could justify, and that random occurrences play a more important role than the evolutionists would admit (Tarde 1890, 1902). Although Tarde accepted the importance of progress, he was no determinist. Progress was not inevitable. The keyword in Tarde's theory was imitation. Innovations spread from one people to another by imitation. He distinguished between two kinds of innovations: accumulative and alternative. By alternative inventions he meant ideas or customs which could not spread without displacing some other idea or custom. With this concept selection was sneaked into Tarde's theory under the name of opposition. Opposition between alternative innovations could take the form of war, competition, or discussion (Tarde 1890, 1898).

Another early proponent of diffusionism was the american anthropologist Franz Boas. It was Boas who started the discussion about whether similarities between distant cultures were due to diffusion or independent innovation. He criticized the evolutionists for attributing too much importance to parallel evolution, i.e. the assumption that the same phenomenon has arisen independently at different places. Boas is usually considered one of the greatest opponents of evolutionism, but it is worth mentioning that he did not reject the theoretical foundation of evolutionism. Boas was opposed to great generalizations, and he emphasized that similarities between two cultures could be explained either by diffusion or parallel evolution and that it was impossible to distinguish between these two possibilities without closer investigation (Harris 1969:259,291). In his discussions he gave examples of both diffusion and parallel invention. As is evident from the following citation, he did indeed recognize that the two processes are both controlled by the same selection process:

"When the human mind evolves an idea, or when it borrows the same idea, we may assume that it has been evolved or accepted because it conforms with the organization of the human mind; else it would not be evolved or accepted. The wider the distribution of an idea, original or borrowed, the closer must be its conformity with the laws governing the activities of the human mind. Historical analysis will furnish the data referring to the growth of ideas among different people; and comparisons of the processes of their growth will give us knowledge of the laws which govern the evolution and selection of ideas." (Boas 1898, cit. after Stocking 1974).

Later diffusionists have actually described the attributes of an invention that have significance for whether it will spread or not. Everett Rogers lists the following attributes of an invention as important: advantage relative to alternatives, compatibility with existing structures, complexity, trialability, and observability. Rogers repeatedly emphasizes, however, that it is the perceived, rather than the objective attributes of the invention that matters (Rogers, E.M. 1983). By this emphasis he places the locus of control in the potential adopter of a new invention rather than in the inanimate invention itself. And herein lies the hidden agenda of the conflict between diffusionists and evolutionists: The diffusionists want to maintain an anthropocentric worldview, where the world is governed by conscious decisions of persons with a free will, whereas the non-anthropocentric model of evolutionism attributes an important amount of control to haphazard and often unanticipated effects and automatic mechanisms.

The most obvious difference between diffusionism and evolutionism is that diffusionism first and foremost is an idiographic tradition. It focuses on specific studies of delimited phenomena, trying to map the geographical distribution of a certain custom or technology, and finding out where it has first arisen and how it has spread. Diffusionists reject the great generalizations, and believe more in chance occurrences than in universal laws. Evolutionism, on the contrary, is a nomothetic science, which seldom has been applied to the study of specific details (Harris 1969).

The difference between the two research traditions can also be illustrated as a difference between a physical-chemical metaphor and a biological metaphor. Diffusion is a process whereby different molecules get mixed because of their random movements. By using the random motion of molecules as a metaphor for customs spreading in society, the diffusionists have stressed the importance of randomness. This metaphor naturally draws the attention of the scientists toward the spatial dimension, the velocity with which customs spread geographically, and the barriers impeding this expansion. The metaphor encompasses only the movement aspect, but neither innovation, selection, or reproduction. The latter three aspects belong to the biological metaphor on which social evolutionism is built. Evolutionism focuses on the time dimension, and it is important to notice that the time dimension is irreversible. Due to this irreversibility, the attention of the evolutionists becomes focused on the direction of the evolution. Evolutionism has thus become a deterministic philosophy of progress.

The most extreme form of diffusionism is built on the concept of a few culture centers, where innovations miraculously arise, and then spread in concentric circles from that center. This line of thought came primarily from religious circles as a reaction against the atheistic evolutionism, and as an attempt to bring science in harmony with the christian story of creation (Harris 1969).

Early diffusionism can hardly be said to be a theoretical school, since it first and foremost was a reaction against the excessive theorizing of the evolutionists. Diffusionism has even been called a non-principle (Harris 1969).

Many diffusion studies have been made independently within many different areas of research all throughout the twentieth century. These are mainly idiographic studies, too numerous to mention here (See Katz et al. 1963; Rogers, E.M. 1983). Most diffusionists study only inventions that are assumed to be advantageous so that they can ignore selection criteria (Rogers, E.M. 1983).

Occasionally, diffusion studies have been combined with darwinian thinking, namely in linguistics (Greenberg 1959). It may seem illogical to apply selection theory to linguistics, since it must be difficult for linguists to explain why one synonym or one pronunciation should spread at the expense of another, when, in principle, they are equally applicable. Gerard et. al. (1956) proposes that the selection criteria are that the word must be easy to pronounce and easy to understand.

Geographer Richard Ormrod has argued for incorporating the concepts of adaptation and selection in diffusion studies. A diffusing innovation is selected by potential adopters who decide whether to adopt the innovation or not. Ormrod understands that the fitness of an innovation depends on local conditions. What is fit in one place may not be fit at some other location. Consequently, innovations are often modified in order to adapt them to local conditions (Ormrod 1992).

Newer diffusion theories have departed somewhat from the purely ideographic tradition and developed a detailed mathematical formalism enabling a description of the velocity with which innovations spread in society (Hamblin et. al 1973, Valente 1993). Incidentally, sociobiologists have produced very similar mathematical models for cultural diffusion (Aoki 1996), but the two schools are still developing in parallel without reference to each other.


2.6 Sociobiology

In the early 1970's a new paradigm emerged within biology, dealing with the explanation of social behavior of animals and humans by referring to evolutionary, genetic, and ecological factors. The principal work within this new paradigm was E.O. Wilson's famous and controversial book: Sociobiology (1975), which named and defined this discipline. Wilson's book provoked a fierce criticism from the sociologists (see e.g. Sahlins 1976). The conflict between the biological and the humanistic view of human nature seems impossible to resolve, and the heated debate is still going on today, twenty years later.

Apparently, it has been quite natural for the early ethologists and sociobiologists to reflect over the relationship between genetic and cultural inheritance. Several thinkers have independently introduced this discussion to the sociobiological and evolutionary paradigm, in most cases without knowledge of the previous literature on this subject.

The possibility of selection based on cultural inheritance is briefly mentioned by one of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz (1963), and likewise in Wilson's book sociobiology (1975). In a later book (1978) Wilson mentions the important difference between genetic and cultural evolution, that the latter is lamarckian, and therefore much faster.

In 1970, archaeologist Frederick Dunn defined cultural innovation, transmission, and adaptation with explicit reference to the analogy with darwinian evolutionary theory, but avoided any talk about cultural selection - apparently in order to avoid being connected with social darwinism and evolutionism, to which he found it necessary to dissociate himself:

"Although several analogies have been drawn between biological evolutionary concepts and cultural evolution, the reader will appreciate that they are of a different order than those analogies that once gave "cultural evolution" an unsavory reputation [...] In particular, I avoid any suggestion of inevitable and necessary tendencies toward increasing complexity and "improvement" of cultural traits and assemblages with the passage of time." (Dunn 1970).

In 1968 anthropologist and ethologist F.T. Cloak published a rudimentary sketch of a cultural evolutionary theory closely related to the genetic theory, imagining that culture was transmitted in the form of small independent information units, subject to selection. In a later article (1975) he explained the distinction between the cultural instructions and the material culture that these instructions give rise to, analogously with the distinction between genotype and phenotype in biology. He also pointed out the possibility for conflict between cultural instructions and their bearers, as he compared the phenomenon with a parasite or virus.

In 1972 psychologist Raymond Cattell published a book attempting to construct an ethic on a scientific, evolutionary basis. He emphasized cultural group selection as a mechanism by which man evolves cooperation, altruism, and moral behavior. He held the opinion that this mechanism ought to be promoted, and imagined giant sociocultural experiments with this purpose. By this argument he copied eugenic philosophy to cultural evolution.

At a symposium in 1971 about human evolution, biologist C.J. Bajema proposed a simple model for the interaction between genetic and cultural inheritance. He imagined this process as a synergistic interaction, where the cultural part of the process was defined accordingly:

"Cultural adaptation to the environment takes place via the differential transmission of ideas which influence how human beings perceive and interact with the environment which affect survival and reproductive patterns in and between human populations." (Bajema 1972).

A somewhat more detailed description of cultural selection mechanisms was presented by anthropologist Eugene Ruyle at another meeting in 1971. Ruyle emphasized the psychological selection in the individual's "struggle for satisfaction". His description of selection mechanisms seems to be very much inspired by Donald Campbell's article from 1965 (see page 28), although he denies the possibility for cultural group selection (Ruyle 1973).

Among the first biologists taking up the idea of cultural selection was also Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, who on a conference in 1970 published a theory of cultural selection based on the fact that some ideas are more readily accepted than others (Cavalli-Sforza 1971). It is apparent from this publication, that Cavalli-Sforza is totally ignorant of the previous literature on this subject despite some knowledge of anthropology. His only reference to cultural selection is the colleague Kenneth Mather, who mentions group selection based on social inheritance in a book on human genetics. Mather (1964) does not mention from where he has this idea. Since neither Cavalli-Sforza, nor Mather, at this time reveal any knowledge of cultural evolution theory in the social sciences, we must assume that they have invented most of this theory by themselves. Curiously enough, the abovementioned article by Cavalli-Sforza contains a discussion of the difficulty in deciding whether an idea that occurs in multiple different places has spread by diffusion or has been invented independently more than one time.

Together with his colleague Marcus Feldman, Cavalli-Sforza has later published several influential articles on cultural selection. Their literature search has been rather casual. In 1973 they referred to an application of selection theory in linguistics (Gerard et al. 1956) and to a short mentioning of the theory in a discussion of eugenics (Motulsky 1968). Not until 1981 did they refer to more important publications such as White (1959) and Campbell (1965).

The publications of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman were strongly influenced by their background in genetics, which is an exact science. Their advancement of selection theory consisted mainly of setting up mathematical models (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman 1981). The concise description of the models by mathematical formulae has certain advantages, but apparently also serious drawbacks. Many social phenomena are more complex and irregular than mathematical formulae can express, and the representations reveal that the examples given were chosen to fit the mathematical models, rather than vice versa. The majority of their models thus describe vertical transmission, i.e. from parents to children, rather than other kinds of transmission. There was also a certain focus on models in which the selection depends on from whom an idea comes, rather than the quality of the idea itself. Such models may admittedly have some relevance in the description of social stratification and social mobility.


2.7 Interaction between genetic and cultural selection

In 1976 William Durham asserted that the genetic and the cultural evolution are mutually interacting, and hence in principle cannot be analyzed separately as independent processes. The interaction between these two processes was aptly named genetic/cultural coevolution. Unlike several other thinkers, Durham did not at this time see any conflict between these two kinds of evolution. In his understanding the two selection processes were both directed towards the same goal: the maximum possible reproduction of the individual and its nearest relatives. This criterion is what biologists call inclusive fitness. Despite criticism from both anthropologists and biologists (Ruyle, et al. 1977), Durham stuck to his position for a couple of years (Durham 1979), but has later accepted that genetic and cultural fitness are in principle different, although he maintained that the two kinds of selection in most cases reinforce each other and only rarely are in opposition to each other (Durham 1982, 1991). The most important selection mechanism in Durham's theory is conscious choices based on criteria which in themselves may be subject to cultural selection. He emphasized the distinction between cultural information units, called memes, and the behaviors they control. Genes and memes form two parallel information channels and their reciprocal interaction is symmetrical in Durham's model. Unfortunately, he did not distinguish clearly between selective transmission of memes, and selective use of these (Durham 1991, this problem is discussed on page 72).

While Durham regarded genetic and cultural selection as synergistic, two other scientists, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson (1976, 1978), asserted that genetic and cultural fitness are two fundamentally different concepts, and if they point in the same direction it is only a coincidence. Boyd and Richerson have developed a theoretical model for the conflict between these two selection processes and the consequences of such a conflict (1978).

In a later article (1982) Boyd and Richerson claimed that humans have a genetic predisposition for cultural conformism and ethnocentrism, and that this trait promotes cultural group selection. This mechanism can then lead to cooperation, altruism, and loyalty to a group. These are characters that usually have been difficult for sociobiologists to explain because Darwin's principle of natural selection presumably would lead to egoism. Several other researchers have since proposed similar theories explaining altruism by cultural selection mechanisms (Feldman, Cavalli-Sforza & Peck 1985; Simon, H. 1990; Campbell 1991; Allison 1992).

In 1985, Boyd and Richerson at last provided a more thorough and well-founded collection of models for cultural selection. Their book also describes how those genes that make cultural transmission and selection possible may have originated, as well as an analysis of the conditions that determine whether cultural selection will increase or decrease genetic fitness (Boyd & Richerson 1985, see also Richerson & Boyd 1989).

While Boyd and Richerson maintain that cultural evolution is able to override genetic evolution, sociobiologist Edward Wilson and physicist Charles Lumsden had the opposite view on the gene/culture coevolution. They believed that the genetic evolution controls the cultural evolution. Their basic argument was that the cultural selection is controlled by people's genetically determined preferences, the so-called epigenic rules. They imagined that the genes control the culture like a dog on a leash (Lumsden & Wilson 1981). Let me illustrate this so-called leash principle by the following example: Assume that a certain food item can be prepared in two different ways, A and B. A is the most common because it tastes better, but B is the healthiest. In this situation genetic evolution will change people's taste so that they prefer B, and consequently cultural selection will quickly make B the most widespread recipe.

Lumsden and Wilson's book expressed an extreme biologic reductionism, since they imagined that genes are able to control almost everything by adjusting human preferences. In this model, culture becomes almost superfluous. Their book has been highly disputed. One important point of criticism was that their theory lacked empirical support. Although Lumsden and Wilson have documented that humans do have certain inborn preferences, they have never demonstrated any differences between humans in different cultures with respect to such preferences (Cloninger & Yokoyama 1981; Lewin 1981; Smith & Warren 1982; Lumsden, Wilson, 1982; Almeida 1984; Rogers, A.R. 1988). A problem with the leash principle is to explain cultural traits that reduce genetic fitness. This argument has been met by the construction of a model of cultural transmission analogous to sexual selection - a genetic selection mechanism which is famous for its potential for reducing fitness (see chapt. 4.2) (Takahasi 1998).

In later publications, Lumsden and Wilson no longer insisted that cultural differences have a genetic explanation, but they did not retract this claim either. They still maintained that even small changes in the genetic blend of a population can lead to considerable changes in the culture (Lumsden & Wilson 1985; Lumsden 1988, 1989).

At a workshop in 1986 entitled "Evolved Constraints on Cultural Evolution"4 there was general agreement that a human is not born as a tabula rasa, but does indeed have genetically determined predispositions to learn certain behavior patterns easier than others. But there was no approval of the claim that genetic evolution can be so fast that it is able to govern cultural evolution. On the contrary, certain models were published showing that cultural evolution in some cases may produce behaviors that are genetically maladaptive, and that the leash principle in fact can be turned upside down, so that it is culture that controls the genes (Richerson & Boyd 1989, Barkow 1989).

An important contribution to the debate came from the psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, who proposed a new kind of human ethology which they call evolutionary psychology5. According to this theory, man's psyche is composed of a considerable number of specialized mechanisms, each of which has been evolved for a specific adaptive function, and do not necessarily work as universal learning mechanisms or fitness maximizing mechanisms. These psychological mechanisms are so complex and the genetic evolution so slow, that we must assume that the human psyche is adapted to the life-style of our ancestors in the pleistocene period:

"The hominid penetration into the "cognitive niche" involved the evolution of some psychological mechanisms that turned out to be relatively general solutions to problems posed by "local" conditions [...] The evolution of the psychological mechanisms that underlie culture turned out to be so powerful that they created a historical process, cultural change, which (beginning at least as early as the Neolithic) changed conditions far faster than organic evolution could track, given its inherent limitations on rates of successive substitution. Thus, there is no a priori reason to suppose that any specific modern cultural or behavioral practice is "adaptive" [...] or that modern cultural dynamics will necessarily return cultures to adaptive trajectories if perturbed away. Adaptive tracking must, of course, have characterized the psychological mechanisms governing culture during the Pleistocene, or such mechanisms could never have evolved; however, once human cultures were propelled beyond those Pleistocene conditions to which they were adapted at high enough rates, the formerly necessary connection between adaptive tracking and cultural dynamics was broken." (Tooby & Cosmides 1989).

The theory that genetically determined preferences control the direction of cultural evolution, has been put forward many times, and also without Lumsden and Wilson's exaggeration of the power of the genes. Psychologist Colin Martindale calls this principle hedonic selection:

"It is certainly possible that some of the genes freed by the capacity for culture may serve to "fine-tune" human hedonic responses so as to increase the probability that what brings pleasure will direct behavior in a way likely to increase [genetic] fitness. [...] it is generally assumed that hedonic selection will proceed in a certain direction until it is checked by the production of traits that render their possessors unfit [...]" (Martindale 1986).

While some scientists stress the importance of psychological mechanisms (e.g. Mundinger 1980), others regard the survival of the individual or group as the ultimate criterion for cultural selection:

"In the short run, various criteria - including efficiency of energy capture, and the satisfaction of perceived needs and wants - may determine the selection and retention of certain behavior. In the longer term, however, only if that behavior contributes to the persistence of the group or population in terms of reproductive continuity will it be truly retained." (Kirch 1980).

This model does not leave much room for psychological selection of cultural phenomena. According to Kirch (1980), such a selection is not allowed to run further than the higher selection with the individual or the group as unit of selection allows.

In recent years, the theory of gene/culture coevolution has been refined by a group of canadian biologists lead by C.S. Findlay. Findlay has continued the strictly mathematical tradition of Cavalli-Sforza, and constructed a series of mathematical models for cultural evolution and gene/culture coevolution. The mathematical analysis reveals that even relatively simple cultural systems can give rise to a great variety of complex phenomena, which are not possible in genetic systems of similar composition. These peculiar phenomena include the existence of multiple equilibrium states, oscillating systems, and stable polymorphism (Findlay, Lumsden & Hansell 1989a,b; Findlay 1990, 1992). Real world examples for such complex mechanisms were not given, but a few studies applying gene/culture coevolution theory to actual observations have been published (Laland, Kumm & Feldman 1995).


2.8 Memetics

Richard Dawkins’ famous and controversial book The selfish gene (1976) described genes as selfish beings striving only to make as many copies of themselves as possible. The body of an animal can thus be viewed as nothing more than the genes’ tool for making more genes. Many people feel that Dawkins is turning things upside down, but his way of seeing things has nevertheless turned out to be very fruitful. In a short chapter in the same book he has applied a similar point of view to culturally transmitted traits. Dawkins has introduced the new name meme (rhymes with beam) for cultural replicators. A meme is a culturally transmitted unit of information analogous to the gene (Dawkins 1976, 1993).

The idea that a meme can be viewed as a selfish replicator that manipulates people to make copies of itself has inspired many scholars in the recent years. An obvious example is a religious cult which spends most of its energy on recruiting new members. The sect supports a set of beliefs that makes its members do exactly that: work hard to recruit new members.

A meme is not a form of life. Strictly speaking, the meme cannot reproduce itself, it can only influence people to replicate it. This is analogous to a virus: a virus does not contain the apparatus necessary for its own reproduction. Instead it parasitizes its host and uses the reproductive apparatus of the host cell to make new viruses. The same applies to a computer virus: it takes over the control of the infected computer for a while and uses it to make copies of itself (Dawkins 1993). Viruses and computer viruses are the favorite metaphors used in meme theory, and the vocabulary is borrowed from virology: host, infection, immune reaction, etc.

The idea of selfish memes has developed into a new theoretical tradition which is usually called meme theory or memetics. While meme theorists agree that most memes are beneficial to their hosts, they often concentrate on adverse or parasitic memes because this is an area where meme theory has greater explanatory power than alternative paradigms. Unlike the more mathematically oriented sociobiologists, the meme theorists have no problem finding convincing real-life examples that support their theories. In fact, in the beginning this tradition relied more on cases and examples than on theoretic principles.

Several meme theorists have studied the evolution of religions or cults. A religion or sect is a set of memes which are transmitted together and reinforce each other. Certain memes in such a meme complex are hooks which make the entire set of beliefs propagate by providing an incentive for the believer to proselytize. Other memes in the complex makes the host resistant to infection by rival beliefs. The belief that blind faith is a virtue has exactly this function. Other very powerful parts of the meme complex may be promises of rewards or punishments in the after-life (Paradise or Hell-fire) which make the host obey the commands of all the memes in the complex (Lynch 1996, Brodie 1996).

Examples of the unintended effects of cultural selection abound in memetic theory texts. One example is charity organizations spending most of their money on promotion:

"It is their effectiveness in attracting funding and volunteers that determines whether they can stay in existence and perform their functions [...] Given limited resources in the world and new organizations being introduced all the time, the surviving organizations must become better and better at surviving. Any use of their money or energy for anything other than surviving - even using it for the charitable purpose for which they were created! - provides an opening for a competing group to beat them out for resources." (Brodie 1996:158)

Another example of parasitic memes is chain letters which contain a promise of reward for sending out copies of the letter or punishment for breaking the chain (Goodenough & Dawkins 1994).

One reason why arbitrary memes can spread is people’s gullibility. Ball (1984) argues, that gullibility can actually be a (genetic) fitness advantage: Believing the same as others do, has the advantage of improved cooperation and belonging to a group. People’s tendency to follow any new fad is what Ball (1984) calls the bandwagon effect.

The stability of a meme complex depends on its ability to make its host resistant to rival beliefs. Beliefs in supernatural and invisible phenomena are difficult to refute, and hence quite stable. Secular belief-complexes will be stable only if they have a similar defense against disproof. Such a defense can be the belief that a grand conspiracy has covered up all evidence by infiltrating the most powerful social institutions (Dennett 1995).

While most meme theorists paint a fairly pessimistic picture of memes as parasitic epidemics, Douglas Rushkoff has presented a quite optimistic view of the memes that infest public media. He has studied how memes containing controversial or counter-cultural messages can penetrate mainstream media packaged as trojan horses. This gives grass-roots activists and other people without money or political positions the power to influence public opinion and provoke social change (Rushkoff 1994). Rushkoff does not seem to worry that the public agenda is thus determined by who has the luck to launch the most effective media viruses rather than by who has the most important messages to tell.

The paradigm of meme theory is only gradually crystallizing into a rigorous science. Most of the publications are in the popular science genre with no exact definitions or strict formalism. Dennett does not even consider it a science because it lacks reliable formalizations, quantifiable results, and testable hypotheses, but he appreciates the insight it gives (1995). There is no common agreement about the definition of a meme. While most meme theorists consider the meme to be analogous to biological genotype and the phenotype has its parallel in social behavior or social structure, William Benzon has it exactly opposite (Benzon 1996, Speel & Benzon 1997).

The analogy with biology is often taken very far (e.g. Dennett 1990, 1995) which makes the theory vulnerable to criticism. Critics have argued that humans are intelligent and goal-seeking beings which are more influenced by logical, true, informative, problem-solving, economic, and well-organized ideas than by illogical, false, useless or harmful beliefs (Percival 1994).

Memetics will probably continue to be a soft science. Heyes and Plotkin have used cognitive psychology and brain neurology to argue that information is being transformed while stored in human memory and may be altered under the influence of later events. This leads them to argue that memes cannot be distinct, faithful copies of particulate information-bits, but blending and ever changing clusters of information (Heyes & Plotkin 1989). The products of cultural evolution or conceptual evolution cannot be systematized into distinct classes and it is impossible to make a strict evolutionary taxonomy of cultures (Hull 1982, Benzon 1996).

Richard Brodie, a computer engineer, has divided memes into three fundamental classes: distinction memes that define names and categories, strategy memes that define strategies of behavior and theories about cause and effect, and association memes that make the presence of one thing trigger a thought or feeling about something else (Brodie 1996).

Brodie has paid particular attention to the selection criteria that make some memes spread more than others. Based on evolutionary psychology6, his theory says that memes have higher fitness when they appeal to fundamental instincts:

"Memes involving danger, food, and sex spread faster than other memes because we are wired to pay more attention to them - we have buttons around those subjects." (Brodie 1996:88)

In other words, the memes that push the right buttons in our psyche are the most likely to spread. The most fundamental buttons have already been mentioned: danger, food, and sex. Other buttons identified by Brodie include: belonging to a group, distinguishing yourself, obeying authority, power, cheap insurance, opportunity, investment with low risk and high reward, protecting children.

For example, the danger button is the reason why horror movies are popular. The cheap insurance button is what makes people knock on wood even when they claim not to be superstitious. And the low risk - high reward button is what makes people invest in lotteries even when the chance of winning is abysmally small (Brodie 1996).

Meme theorists have a peculiar penchant for self-referential theories. Scientific theories are memes, and the theory of memes itself is often called the meme meme or metameme. When meme theorists are discussing scientific memes, they usually pick examples from those sciences with which they are most familiar. This extraordinary scientific self-awareness has led many meme theorists to present their theories in the most popularized way with the deliberate, and often proclaimed, aim of spreading the meme meme most effectively (e.g. Lynch 1996, Brodie 1996).


2.9 Sociology and anthropology

The selection theory is quite unpopular among modern sociologists and anthropologists (Berghe 1990) and only few express a positive view (e.g. Blute 1987). Opponents of the theory claim that there is no cultural analogy to genes and that the selection theory attributes too much importance to competition, whereas cooperation and conscious planning is ignored (Hallpike 1985, Adams 1991). The critics attribute a more literal analogy with darwinism to the adherents of the theory than they have ever stated, to make the theory look absurd. Biologists Pulliam and Dunford have characterized the gap between biology and social sciences in this way:

"It seems to us that decades of development in intellectual isolation from each other have allowed biological and social scientists to diverge in interests, ideas and especially language to the point where the two types of scientists now find it painfully difficult to communicate." (Pulliam & Dunford 1980)

This is no exaggeration. Many social scientists have rejected sociobiology, and for good reasons. The following is an excerpt from a radio-transmitted debate in connection with Lumsden and Wilson's book: Genes, Mind and Culture (1981):

John Maddox: "Should it be possible, or should it not be possible, on the basis of your theory, to be able to predict which people go to the back door and which to the front door when they go to visit John Turner in Leeds?

Edward O. Wilson: "If there can be demonstrated substantial genetic variation in some of the epigenetic rules that produce strong bias, yes. But that is difficult to pin down at this very early, very primitive level of our understanding of human behavioral genetics." (Maddox et al., 1984).

When Wilson, who is regarded as the founder of and foremost representative of sociobiology, can come up with such absurd a biological reductionism, it is no wonder that most sociologists and anthropologists take no interest in sociobiology, but instead develop their own theories. Many social scientists depict society as an autonomous system in order to avoid biological and psychological reductionism (Yengoyan 1991).

There are, nevertheless, significant similarities between biological and sociological theories of culture. The french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has studied the reproduction of social structures in the educational system (Bourdieu & Passeron 1970), and the british cultural sociologist Raymond Williams has elaborated further on this theory, and demonstrated that the cultural reproduction is subject to a conscious selection:

"For tradition ('our cultural heritage') is self-evidently a process of deliberate continuity, yet any tradition can be shown, by analysis, to be a selection and reselection of those significant received and recovered elements of the past which represent not a necessary but a desired continuity. In this it resembles education, which is a comparable selection of desired knowledge and modes of learning and authority." (Williams, R. 1981:187)

Williams has brilliantly explained how different cultural forms are connected with different degrees of autonomy and degrees of freedom, and hence unequal possibilities for selection. Williams analyzes both cultural innovation, reproduction, and selection, but oddly enough, he never combines these three concepts to a coherent evolutionary theory, and he omits any reference to evolutionary scientists (Williams, R. 1981). This omission is probably due to a resistance against overstated generalizations and, quite likely, a fear of being associated with social darwinism.

The philosopher Rom Harré has theorized over social change from a mainly sociological paradigm. He discussed whether innovations are random or not, and hence whether social evolution can be characterized as darwinian or lamarckian. Harré has made a distinction between cultural informations, and the social practice they produce, but he has not gone into details with the selection process and its mechanisms (Harré 1979, 1981).

Sociologist Michael Schmid has proposed a reconstruction of the theory of collective action based on selectionist thought, but with few references to biology. He argues that collective actions regulated by social rules have consequences which tend to stabilize or destabilize these rules. This is an evolutionary mechanism which Schmid calls internal selection, because all factors are contained within the social system. The selective impact of external resources on the stability of social regulations is considered external selection (Schmid 1981, 1987; Kopp & Schmid 1981). His theory has had some influence on social systems theory which in turn has influenced sociocybernetics (Luhmann 1984, Zouwen 1997).


2.10 Attempts to make a synthesis of sociobiology and anthropology

It seems obvious to try to fit sociobiologic theory into anthropology, and there have of course been several attempts along this line. Unfortunately, those attempting to do so have seldom been able to escape the limitations of their old paradigms and the results have seldom been very convincing.

In 1980, the biologists Ronald Pulliam and Christopher Dunford published a book in the popular science genre with this purpose. Despite intentions to make their book interdisciplinary, they disclose a rather limited knowledge of the humanistic sciences.

David Rindos, who is a botanist as well as an anthropologist, has written several articles about cultural selection (1985, 1986). His articles contain some errors and misconceptions which, for the sake of brevity, I will not mention here, but instead refer to Robert Carneiro's criticism (1985).

In an article by anthropologist Mark Flinn and Zoologist Richard Alexander (1982) the theory of coevolution is turned down by rejecting the culture/biology dichotomy and the difference between cultural and genetic fitness. Their argumentation has been rebutted by Durham (1991) and others.

Ethologist Robert Hinde has likewise attempted to bridge the gap between biology and sociology, but his discussions largely remain within the ethological paradigm. Cultural selection theory is cursorily mentioned, but cultural fitness is not discussed (Hinde 1987).

Sociologist Jack Douglas has combined a special branch of social science, namely the sociology of deviance, with the theory of cultural selection. By combining sociology, sociobiology, and psychology, Douglas has created a model for social change, where social rules are seen as analogous to genes, and deviations from the rules play the same role in social evolution as mutations do in genetic evolution. Douglas' theory addresses the question of how social deviations arise, and how people overcome the shame that deviation from the rules entail (Douglas, J. 1977).

Archaeologist Patrick Kirch has presented a fairly detailed theory for cultural selection, and unlike most other researchers in selection theory, he has supported his theory thoroughly with specific examples. As mentioned on page 40, Kirch does not ascribe much importance to conscious or psychological selection, but regards the survival of the individual or the group as the ultimate selection criterion. Such cultural phenomena which has no obvious importance for survival, such as for example art or play, are regarded as random and neutral towards selection (Kirch 1980).

Like Patrich Kirch, anthropologist Michael Rosenberg emphasizes that cultural innovations are not necessarily random, but often the result of purposeful reactions to a stressful situation such as overpopulation. In particular he contends that agriculture initially arose as a reaction to overpopulation:

"... an allocation model proposes that in certain types of habitats, hunter-gatherers will resolve the symptoms of population pressure-induced stress through the voluntary or involuntary allocation of standing wild resources. It further proposes that, in a still more limited number of cases (given the institution of territorial systems), the consequences of growing population pressure-induced stress will be perceived as being most readily mitigated by food production, rather than by warfare or some other behavior intended to address these proximate consequences. Finally, it also proposes that it is under precisely such circumstances that sedentism, food storage, and other behaviors thought integral to the process develop to be selected for." (Rosenberg, M. 1990).

The proficiency of the abovementioned scientists notwithstanding, I will maintain that their attempts at forming a synthesis of the different sciences have so far been insufficient. Not until recently has a fairly sound combination of sociology and sociobiology been presented. In 1992, the two sociologists Tom Burns and Thomas Dietz published a theory for cultural evolution based on the theory of the relationship between individual agency and social structure. Culture is defined as a set of rules which is established, transmitted, and used selectively. Burns and Dietz explain how an existing social structure sets limits to what kind of thoughts and actions are possible. An implicit selection lies in the requirement that actions and ideas must be compatible with the social structure, and that different sub-structures must be mutually compatible. According to Burns and Dietz, cultural selection proceeds in two steps: A greater or lesser part of the available resources is allocated to different actors or groups according to certain rules; these resources can subsequently be utilized to maintain and reinforce the concerned group or institution and its rules. Of course Burns and Dietz also mention the obvious selection that takes place by the exercise of power, as well as the limitations constituted by the material environment and the ecology (Burns & Dietz 1992). Despite the fact that these two sociologists better than most other scientists have been able to integrate different paradigms, their theory has been criticized for being reductionist and for not paying enough attention to certain important parts of social life (Strauss 1993).

Political scientist Ann Florini has recently applied selection theory to the development of international norms. According to her model, three conditions must be met for an international norm to spread: firstly, the norm has to get prominence, usually by being promoted by a norm entrepreneur; secondly, it must be compatible with preexisting norms; and thirdly, it must fit the environmental conditions. She argues that new norms mainly are adopted through emulation of influential actors, rather than through a rational evaluation of all avaliable alternatives (Florini 1996).


2.11 Social psychology

Studies of cultural selection from the point of view of social psychology and cognitive psychology have been too few to form a separate research tradition. This is clearly a neglected area of research.

The distortion of memes through imperfect communication between humans has been explained by Heyes & Plotkin (1989) and Sperber (1990, 1996). This is seen as an important difference between genetic and cultural evolution: cultural informations are generally transformed or modified each time they are copied, and perfect copying is the exception rather than the rule. This is very unlike the case of genetic evolution where the copying of genes as a rule is perfect, and mutation is the exception. In Sperber's model, cultural representations are generally transformed each time they are copied, and this transformation is mostly in the direction of the representation that is most psychologically attractive, most compatible with the rest of the culture, or most easy to remember. Such an 'optimal' representation is called an attractor, and the repeated process of distortion through copying is seen as a trajectory with random fluctuations tending towards the nearest attractor (Sperber 1996).

While other scientists present a simple model of memes being either present or not present in a human brain, Dan Sperber emphasizes that there are different ways of holding a belief. He makes a distinction between intuitive beliefs, which are the product of spontaneous and unconscious perceptual and inferential processes, and reflective beliefs, which are believed by virtue of second order beliefs about them. A claim that is not understood but nevertheless believed because it comes from some authority, is an example of a reflective belief. The commitment to a belief can vary widely, from loosely held opinions to fundamental creeds, from mere hunches to carefully thought out convictions (Sperber 1990).

Psychological and cognitive factors may have important influence on the selection of cultural information. The following factors are mentioned by Sperber: the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized; the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant; and a motivation to communicate the information (Sperber 1990).


2.12 Economic competition

A well known analogy to darwinian evolution is economic competition between enterprises. This analogy has been explored most notably by the two economists Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, who have developed a useful model for economic change. Their theory, which they call evolutionary, is contrasted with traditional economic theory, called orthodox, by its better ability to cope with technological change. Nelson and Winter argue that technological innovation and progress plays an important role in modern economic growth, but is inadequately dealt with in orthodox economic theory. Different firms have different research strategies and different amounts of resources to invest in research and development and hence unequal chances of making technological innovations that improve their competitiveness. Nelson and Winter regard knowledge as accumulative and the process of innovation is therefore described as irreversible.

The so-called orthodox economic theory is criticized for its heavy reliance on the assumption that firms behave in the way that optimizes their profit. Finding the optimal strategy requires perfect knowledge and computing skills. It is argued that knowledge is never perfect and research is costly, and therefore the theoretical optimum may never be found. In contrast to orthodox economic theory, Nelson and Winter argue that economic equilibrium may exist in a market where nothing is optimal, and that many firms may stick to their old routines unless external factors provoke them to search for new strategies:

"A historical process of evolutionary change cannot be expected to "test" all possible behavioral implications of a given set of routines, much less test them all repeatedly [...] There is no reason to expect, therefore, that the surviving patterns of behavior of a historical selection process are well adapted for novel conditions not repeatedly encountered in that process [...] In a context of progressive change, therefore, one should not expect to observe ideal adaptation to current conditions by the products of evolutionary processes." (Nelson & Winter 1982:154)

Nelson and Winter (1982) have developed their evolutionary theory of economics to a high level of mathematical refinement in order to explain important aspects of economic growth as fueled by technological advance better than orthodox economic theory can.

A more general theory of the evolution of business and other organizations has been published by sociologist Howard Aldrich (1979), based on the general formula of variation, selection, and retention. Unlike Nelson and Winter who emphasize goal-directed problem solving as an important source of variation, Aldrich underplays planned innovations and attaches more importance to random variations. Mechanisms of selection include selective survival of whole organizations, selective diffusion of successful innovations between organizations, and selective retention of successful activities within an organization.

The effect of the environment is an important element in Aldrich’s theory. He classifies environments according to several dimensions, such as capacity, homogeneity, stability, predictability, concentration versus dispersion of resources, etc. Different combinations of these parameters can provide different niches to which an organization may adapt (Aldrich 1979).

In a long-term perspective, economic growth may not be steady but rather characterized by periods of relative structural stability and inertia, separated by rapid transitions from one structural regime to another. This is explained by Geoffrey Hodgson (1996) as analogous to the punctuated equilibria model of biological evolution (see chapt. 3.9). A similar theory has been applied to the development of organizations in economic competition. A firm's ability to adapt to changes in the market situation may be impeded by memetic constraints within the organization just like the adaptability of a biological species may be impeded by genetic constraints (see chapt. 3.9). Overcoming such constraints produces a leap in the development of the firm resembling the process of punctuated equilibria in biological evolution (Price 1995).


2.13 Universal selection theory

Selection theory has been found useful for explaining many different phenomena in the world. Several philosophers have therefore been interested in studying similarities between different classes of phenomena which all depend on the same neo-darwinian formula: blind variation and selective retention (Cziko 1995).

Biological and cultural evolution are obvious examples, but also ontogenetic growth and individual learning have been shown to involve such processes. A particularly convincing example is immunology: an organism’s development of antibodies involves a process which is remarkably similar to biological evolution (Cziko 1995). Examples from the inorganic world are more subtle: In the growth of a crystal, each new molecule is wandering randomly about until by chance it hits a fitting place in the crystal lattice. A molecule in a fit position is more likely to be retained than a molecule at an unfit position. This explains how the highly ordered structure of a crystal or a snowflake is generated.

You may notice, that the neo-darwinian formula for biological evolution has been modified here: the word blind has been replaced for random, and reproduction has been changed to retention. These modifications have been made for a reason. In cultural evolution, for example, the variation is seldom completely random. Cultural innovations are often goal-directed although still tentative. The philosophers meet the criticism that variation may be non-random by saying that a new innovation is not guaranteed to be successful, and hence it can be said to be blind to the outcome of the experimental variation (Campbell 1974). This modification has not stopped the criticism, since innovations may be both goal-directed and intelligent to such a degree that the outcome can be predicted with a reasonably high degree of reliability (Hull 1982).

The use of the word retention, rather than reproduction, implies that the selected character is preserved, but not necessarily multiplied. In the crystal-growth example, each new molecule has to go through the same process of blind-variation-and-selective-retention rather than copying the ‘knowledge’ from its predecessors. This mechanism is far less effective than biological evolution, where each new generation inherits the accumulated effect of all prior selections. The new generations do not have to wait for the successful mutations to be repeated. This is a fundamental difference, which many philosophers fail to recognize.

Campbell has introduced a new branch of universal selection theory called evolutionary epistemology. He argues that any adaptation of an organism to its environment represents a form of knowledge of the environment. For example, the shapes of fish and whales represent a functional knowledge of hydrodynamics. The process of blind-variation-and-selective-retention produces such knowledge in a process resembling logical induction. Campbell claims that any increase in fitness of a system to its environment can only be achieved by this process. His theory entails three doctrines of which this is the first one.

Campbell’s argument is symmetric: not only does he say that adaptation is knowledge, he also says that knowledge is adaptation. This means that all human knowledge ultimately stems from processes of blind-variation-and-selective-retention. Hence the term evolutionary epistemology.

There are many processes which bypass the fundamental selection processes. This includes selection at higher levels, feed back, vicarious selection, etc. Intelligent problem solving is an obvious example of such a vicarious selection mechanism: it is much more effective and less costly than the primitive processes based on random mutation and selective survival.

But all such mechanisms, which bypass the lower-level selection processes, are themselves representations of knowledge, ultimately achieved by blind-variation-and-selective-retention. This is Campbell’s second doctrine.

The third doctrine is that all such bypass mechanisms also contain a process of blind-variation-and-selective-retention at some level of their own operation. Even non-tentative ways of acquiring knowledge, such as visual observation, or receiving verbal instruction from somebody who knows, are thus processes involving blind-variation-and-selective-retention according to Campbell’s third doctrine (Campbell 1974, 1990).

Allow me to discuss this controversial claim in some detail. The most deterministic and error-free knowledge-gaining process we can think of is using a computer to get the result of a mathematical equation. Where does a modern computer get its error-free quality from? From digitalization. A fundamental digital circuit has only two possible stable states, designated 0 and 1. Any slight noise or deviation from one of these states will immediately be corrected with a return to the nearest stable state. This automatic error-correction is indeed a process of selective retention.

Going down to an even more fundamental level, we find that the computer circuits are made of transistors, and that the electronic processes in a transistor involve blind-variation-and-selective-retention of electrons in a semiconductor crystal.

This argument is seemingly a defense of Campbell’s third doctrine. But only seemingly so! My project here has not been to defend this doctrine but to reduce it ad absurdum. Campbell tells us that the translation of DNA into proteins involves blind-variation-and-selective-retention. What he does not tell us is that this applies to all chemical reactions. In fact, everything that molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles do, can be interpreted as blind-variation-and-selective-retention. And since everything in the Universe is made of such particles, everything can be said to rely on blind-variation-and-selective-retention.

The problem with the claim that advanced methods of acquiring knowledge involve blind-variation-and-selective-retention is that it is extremely reductionistic. The third doctrine involves the common reductionist fallacy of ignoring that a complex system can have qualities which the constituent elements do not have. At the most fundamental level, everything involves blind-variation-and-selective-retention, but this may be irrelevant for an analysis of the higher-level functioning.

I recognize that Campbell’s first and second doctrines provide a promising solution to the fundamental philosophical problem of where knowledge comes from and what knowledge is, but I find the third doctrine so reductionistic that it is irrelevant.

Undeniably, however, the general darwinian formula represents an excellent mechanism for acquiring new knowledge. This mechanism is utilized in computerized methods for solving difficult optimization problems with many parameters. The principle, which is called evolutionary computation, involves computer simulation of a population of possible solutions to a given problem. New solutions are generated by mutation and sexual recombination of previous solutions, and each new generation of solutions is subjected to selection based on their fitness (Bäck et. al. 1997).


2.14 Conclusion

This chapter has not been an account of the history of evolutionary ideas, but a study of how the principle of selection has been used for explaining cultural change. Although the principle of selection is often found in evolutionary thinking, it has sometimes played only a minor role, since traditional evolutionism has been more concerned with the direction of evolution than with its mechanism (Rambo 1991). This is one of the reasons why evolutionism often has been criticized for being teleological. The vast criticism against evolutionism has only been briefly reported here.

Nineteenth century evolutionists lacked a clear distinction between organic and social inheritance because they did not know Mendel's laws of inheritance. 'Race' and 'culture' were synonymous to them. The principle of the survival of the fittest meant that evolution was dependent on the strongest individuals winning over the weaker ones. Since this process was regarded as natural and no distinction was made between evolution and progress, the logical consequence of this philosophy was a laissez faire-policy where the right of superior forces was the rule. In an extreme ethnocentrism, the so called social darwinists believed that their own race and culture was superior to everybody else and that it therefore was their right and duty to conquer the entire world.

There was a strong opposition between social darwinism and socialism, because the former philosophy assumes that weakness is inborn and must naturally lead to an unkind fate, whereas the socialists believe that poverty and weakness are caused by social factors and ought to be remedied.

In Herbert Spencer's philosophy, all kinds of evolution were analogous: The Universe, the Earth, the species, the individuals, and the society - all were evolving due to one and the same process. This theory has later been rejected and it is unfortunate that such diverse kinds of change are still designated by the same word: 'evolution'. Spencer compared society with an organism and the different institutions in society were paralleled with organs. While this metaphor, which has been quite popular in social science, may be appropriate in connection with a static model of society such as functionalism, it may lead to serious fallacies when social change is being studied. A consequence of the organism analogy is namely that a theory of social change is modeled after individual development rather than after the evolution of species. In the embryonic development of a body, everything is predetermined and the cause of change is inherent in the body which is changing. When transferred to the evolution of society, this line of thought leads to a deterministic, unilinear, and teleological philosophy7. The idea of analogy between different kinds of evolution has recently been revived in the universal selection theory.

The words social darwinism, determinism, unilinearity, and teleology were invectives used mainly by the opponents of evolutionism. These concepts were so vaguely defined that the critics could include any theory under these headings while the proponents of evolutionism with the same ease were able to demonstrate that their theories were indeed not deterministic, teleological, etc.

The debate was - and still is - highly dominated by conflicts between incompatible worldviews and views of human nature. The controversies over nature versus nurture, biology versus culture, determinism versus free will, etc. has made it impossible to reach an agreement and the conflict between different paradigms has so far lasted more than a century. Both sides have exaggerated their positions into extreme reductionism which has made them vulnerable to criticism. Adherents of the philosophy of free will wanted an idiographic description whereas the biologically oriented scientists demanded a nomothetic representation.

Most social evolutionists were more interested in describing the direction or goal of evolution than its causes. Many failed to specify the unit of selection, mechanism of selection, or mode of reproduction, and only few distinguished between genetic and cultural fitness. Their theory therefore had only little explanatory power, and in particular lacked any explanation why the evolution should go in the claimed direction.

The polarization of opinions did not decrease when sociobiologists took the lead in the 1970's. With an excessive use of mathematical formulae, the theoreticians distanced themselves more and more from the real world phenomena they were to describe, and many simplifications and dubious assumptions became necessary in order to make the models mathematically tractable. The mathematical models include so many parameters that it has become impossible to determine the numerical value of them all and it is therefore only possible to draw qualitative and conditional conclusions despite the intense focus on quantitative models. Of course the mathematical language has also widened the communication gap between sociobiologists and anthropologists.

Cultural selection theory has so far never been a separate discipline, but has been investigated by scientists from several different branches of science, such as philosophy, economy, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, linguistics, sociobiology, etc. The consequence of severe communication gaps between the different sciences and neglectful literature search has been that the same ideas have been forgotten and reinvented several times without much progress. This is the reason why primitive and antiquated theories still pop up. Many scientists fail to acknowledge the fundamental differences between genetic and cultural selection (e.g. Ruse 1974; Hill 1978; Harpending 1980; van Parijs 1981; Mealey 1985; Russell & Russell 1982-1992, 1990), and some of these theories are even more insufficient than Leslie Stephen's neglected theory from 1882.

The latest development is the school of memetics which is a much less exact discipline than sociobiology. The lack of rigor and sophistication in memetics has often been deplored, but the softness of this paradigm may help bridge the gap between the biological and humanistic sciences in the future.

In connection with the theory of cultural selection, it has often been stated that knowledge is accumulated. It is an incredible paradox that this very theory itself has deviated so much from this principle when viewed as a case in the history of ideas. The theories of social change have followed a dramatic zigzag course, where every new theoretical fad has rejected the previous one totally rather than modifying and improving it; and where the same ideas and principles have been forgotten and reinvented again and again through more than a century.


2. Brunetières book L'Évolution des Genres dans l'Histoire de la Littérature (1890) was planned as a work in four volumes, of which volume two should describe the general principles for the evolution of literature. Although the first volume was reprinted in several editions, the planned following volumes were never published.

3. Italics are in the original. This also applies to the succeeding citations.

4. The contributions in this workshop have been published in Ethology and Sociobiology, vol. 10, no. 1-3, 1989, edited by Jerome H. Barkow.

5. An introduction to evolutionary psychology can be found in Barkow 1992.

6. See above.

7. Spencer's somewhat inconsistent attitude to this question has often been debated. See Haines (1988).