Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Defence of a Neo-Darwinian analysis of culture

Culture moulds us
Ingold in his “An Anthropologist looks at Biology” offers a critique on Neo-Darwinism. From the text, he seems to be referring to the theory that was popularised under Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” moniker. Ingold argues convincingly that that is a theory that is not complete, such as it was in 1990. Neo-Darwinism then as now is a structure which allows for a well-defined, if abstracted account of evolution, one that can be convincingly put to use analysing the kinds of systems where evolution through fitness for reproduction may emerge. This model however also offers us a view on cultural evolution through the extension into memes.

We are now as far away from Ingold as he was then from the Selfish Gene, does his argument carry the same force that it once did, given what we have learnt about inheritance in the meantime.
Ingolds three main critiques are that Neo-Darwinism is event focused, individuated, and does not include environmental effects upon the organism.

This argument is focused too sharply upon genes, as was the early instantiation of Neo-Darwinism.
The strength of the abstracted Neo-Darwinian account is that it is medium independent. Ingold rightly confronts the genes-or-nothing account of the theory, and gives a strong analysis for how an argument-from-genes offers us only an empty account of life.

Genes are not living. Not least because we can now take genes from a dead organism, and transpose them into the genome of a newly created organism. We can now also manufacture genes to order, designing them according to the amino acids of choice, and even amino acids that are unused in nature.

Genes are not life, but life, as we know it, involves genes, the products that they catalyse, and the substrate that genes are discovered in. The non-coding DNA that makes up the vast majority of the genome is inheritable, mutable, and just as sensitive to natural selection as any gene that resides within it.

It is a higher order medium which moderates and modulates the activities of the genetic material that was the focus of the early Neo-Darwinian model.

Complicating this again is the local environmental interrelationships within an organism, where cells that are proximal induce effects in each other, promoting and constraining the potentialities of their nearby cells.

Add to the organism level effects of hormones. The environmental effects of that lead to methylation within cells, and their intergenerational transfer that has led to a resurgence of epigenetics as a respectable branch of science.

Is it possible to view culture/society/personal-interrelationships through the lens of Neo-Darwinism?
From the Neo-Darwinian perspective, a question about these systems of relations naturally arises, do these systems of relations between people map into the discrete mutable objects-of-evolution that are a necessary element of the memetic theory?

I’m not certain that they do, but to the extent that they do, our cultures would look a lot more like a bacterial colony, or slime mould, than the more familiar animal and plant organisms with which we share our environment.

Bacterial networks are of course in a state of dynamic equipoise with the environment that they share, one of the benefits of their sociality is horizontal gene transfer, therefore as the environment changes it is not necessary for each unit to spontaneously evolve a response; should there be an instantiation within the colony that has a genetic mutation that is relatively beneficial, given the existence of the environmental change, then that will diffuse through the colony. The co-colonists act as an insurance policy for each member, allowing them collectively to take a hit that individually they would not survive. Similarly, the distribution of resources is not flat, so we have found evidence of large physically dispersed networks of even different species of bacteria and fungi that facilitate the distribution of nutrients, or the dispersal of waste etc.

There are some clear homologues so between human cultures, and bacterial cultures. As a metaphor, this clearly would not rule out the neo-darwinian hypothesis, and could argue that that is the benefit of analysing life at the genetic level – because analysing it at the level of the individual in doesn’t capture the full range of activities that are possible in each instance of a bacterium.

Treating the gene as only unit of evolutionary analysis introduces the problem that Ingold correctly identifies; the mere presence of a gene does not predict how it is used by the organism. The use that a gene is put to within an organism can vary in accordance to where it is expressed, the same gene in different tissues carries out different actions. Similarly, it would be hard to argue that GABA receptors in plants are carrying out the same functions as GABA receptors in animals, except in the most trivial of senses.

It is the relationship between the gene and the endo-environment of the organism, which it participates in the creation of, that mediates the activity of the gene. The study of the gene must also include the study of all that might happen the gene, which is a set of possibilities constrained and shaped by the organism’s internal environment, which in turn is mediated by its external environment. Furthermore, the expression of the gene is moderated by the non-coding DNA in the chromosomes of the organisms (which may act as an analogue for the ‘systems of organisation between people’ if we continue to stretch the metaphor) thus we can imagine contrasting mutations in the non-coding DNA with cultural adaptations, and imagine them also diffusing across the boundaries of societies, regulating the activities of people, who are akin to individual genes, in the Neo-Darwinian frame.

Consequently, we could look at human life and culture as part of an extending ladder of regulation. The non-coding DNA regulates genes which control the initial explosion of activity in the fertilised egg. These genes express proteins which modify the internal environment of the cell, which trigger mitosis. The cell divides, these cells moderate each other through chemical messengers across the surfaces of the cells, guiding their activities in response to their environment, and so this scaffold of tiered regulation and response constructs a human. The human can then be viewed as akin to a cell in a multi-cellular organism, it’s activates regulated by the confinements of the culture within which it stands, which promote, or hinder, activities that lie within the potentiality of the individual.
Families regulate the activities of their members, villages regulate the activities of their households, cities their environs, and cultures their populations. Thus we see the possibility of a series of regulatory steps, where each level co-ordinates the activities of the level below, where systems of governance are constrained, and processes are conserved, over long time frames, and behaviours can be modulated endogenously from the highest to the lowest levels.

This offers the Neo-Dawinian’s a robust response to Ingold’s critique, if we include factors such as intergenerational-methylation and use them as analogues for traditions, or other cultural activities that allow the memory of responses to past events to govern the cultural responses to future effects.

Specifically, that the ‘events’ of the organisms life occur repeatedly (even genetically, as each cell must divide and recreate a near copy of itself) and that these events occur across different timeframes, then we can see how life can be more than simple the event of reproduction, but also a series of events which are occurring across different substrates, on different timescales, extending from milliseconds to decades, with different selection processes operating at each level.

While the extension of memetics allows us to consider individuals as non-discrete, the biological extension of epigenetic methylation, requires that we do so. Where we allow for a level of analysis that affords us the possibility of viewing the processes involved in this methylation as being subject to natural selection (and I can’t imagine how such a view could be ruled out) then we can see how the Neo-Darwinians can encompass the implicit nature of being too.

Finally there is the complicated interaction between individual and environment which I have tries to describe by allusion to the well-grounded biological parallels of bacteria and slime moulds etc. where the divide between the individual and the collective is not as sharp as it is on our scale.

The confusion generated by Neo-Darwinism was a function of the over-weighting of the importance of genes, which Ingold correctly identifies, but medium is not the message, it simply bounds the signal. The message of Neo-Darwinism is that as higher orders substrates which can allow for evolutionary processes to occur open up to nature, then each substrate will be rapidly populated with evolving processes.

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