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Tim Lewens, Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges, 2015

Questions about how to relate nature and culture have challenged many specialists for a long time, and for many it has become an intractable issue. The feeling often is that such interaction has been explained according to dominant intellectual and academic fashions. Two big movements have clashed in fierce combat, each trying to provide certainty and understanding: on the one hand biological reductionism, as for instance in the versions of sociobiology – first – and evolutionary psychology – later; on the other hand, social constructivism. However some signs revealing a more open mood perhaps can point towards some type of integration. Indeed “geneculture co-evolution” has become a quite common and broadly accepted model to explain how both dimensions are linked. In any case, it is too early to declare peace between very contentious factions. Some attempts to deal with culture reveal once more reductivist strategies and maneuvering to render and interpret cultural phenomena in biological terms as a result of selective or adaptive evolution.
Lewens’ new book could not be more timely. His work is a badly needed contribution to help tackle that thorny issue, and to introduce constructive nuances that could better explain the complexities involved in cultural dynamics. This is a very central point in several interdisciplinary settings, one of which is the new scientific study of religion. Furthermore, theology being primarily a cultural activity, then the study of culture carries great relevance.
Cultural Evolution is a critical essay that reviews in depth the available positions, displaying wide erudition on the stated subject and related topics. The author’s aim is to assess the main proposed versions of how culture can be understood in evolutionary ways. Nine chapters expound the book's content in orderly and summarized mode. The present review will try to introduce the main points, especially considering their relevance for the science- and-theology dialogue.
The first chapter is devoted to a description of three main theories dealing with culture in evolutionary terms: the historical approach; cultural selectionism, sometimes resorting to replicators – memes – and describing selection as a competition; and the kinetic theory, stressing the centrality of learning between individuals. ‘Cultural epidemiology’, which looks at the 'contagion of ideas’, can be included in the last model. This taxonomy helps in distinguishing among proposals and also helps to avoid too early dismissals. The author then turns to the most promising model, the kinetic theory of culture.
The kinetic theory is broader than the selectionist one, and following its main proponents, Boyd and Richerson, cultural phenomena move beyond ‘aggregated products of individual interactions’ to assume an informa- tional view that can be mathematically modeled (25). The first steps point to a rebuttal of alternative theories, like the one based on memes and their contagion, creating ‘viruses of mind’ and thereby rendering humans passive hosts. Selectionist models, then, entail competition, and this is not always the case among cultural units. Other objections against evolutionary theories of culture require assessment, but often problems arise because of misunderstandings regarding human nature, and a ‘progress’ representation of historical change with ambiguous consequences. The population models rather resort to ‘conformist bias’ and learning processes in human interaction. A pragmatic interest in pushing social sciences towards more scientific and reliable progress appears to be motivating some who are proposing that model.
Chapter 3 is devoted to an analysis of culture as information. Such a task  presents  difficult  challenges.  After  reviewing  several  proposals, Lewens defends a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, after confronting the many weaknesses. Indeed that concept appears as too broad, and can be viewed, following Mesoudi, as ‘knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, norms, preferences and skills’ (49). In any case, the proposed analysis reveals that information can be transmitted by different means as it does in the one based on selection; it requires an interaction with ‘socially structured environments’; and can resort to external storing means.
Chapters 4 and 5 can be considered digressions on ‘human nature’, whose relevance is apparent in an essay about cultural evolution, since that nature has many times been viewed in contrast with culture. The idea is pervasive in biological and human sciences, looking for constant and universal traits. However, many scholars in the evolutionary camp refuse such an approach. The deep analysis in these pages from many authors clearly invites one to reject too strong a distinction between the natural and the cultural, when humans are involved. Imitation and learning emerge as plausible proposals, however only a ‘libertine’, i.e. very broad and fuzzy description of similarities, could satisfy that search. The same applies to descriptions of gene-culture co-evolution, again moving beyond strong distinctions.  Interestingly  the  criticism  extends  to  Pascal  Boyer  and  his  well known cognitive analysis of religion. The proposed integration is apparent in proposals like ‘Developmental systems theory’, describing how diverse processes result in bringing out many traits. Even the concept of ‘innateness’ becomes problematic from that perspective, as well as the distinction between individual and social learning.
Chapter 6 examines ‘cultural models’ and how cultural evolution can be modeled. This approach means models describing ‘how beliefs and val- ues are transmitted among individuals, and how this process generates and maintains differences among groups’ (106). The analysis shows a circularity that affects its robustness. Even ‘conformity models’ appear as circular and too simplified. This skepticism gives place to the next chapter and its analysis of ‘populations, people, and power’. Indeed power dynamics could reveal how individuals aggregate in populations. However tensions arise again between the macro and the micro-level and about the heuristic power that evolutionary theories can exhibit. Possibly, ‘networks analysis’ can provide some healthy correctives.
‘Cultural adaptationism’ is the title of the last thematic chapter. In this case, early environments in which humans evolved carry maximal importance to explain the direction assumed by cognitive and cultural evolution. Once more skepticism arises over such explanations, which often simplify that context and become too speculative. In the end, they appear to lack explanatory force. To give a more promising result such approach should integrate more contributions from other disciplines. Adaptive processes become more complex and are the result of many interactions. All this justifies a need to assume a more ‘eclectic synthesis’, one that includes developmental and historical views. Only when the biological and social sciences are integrated will there be a promising path to better understand how culture evolves, beyond sheer adaptive strategies.
The last chapter deals with the proposed eclectic program by means of a case study: emotions. The discussion in these pages clearly claims that it overcomes a too-restricted approach under the promise of more scientific results. The reductive program appears as faulty, since culture in many cases influence how emotions are expressed and understood; an essentialist view would lack that necessary perspective. The conclusion reveals what can be learned from this set of theories. Beyond selectionist and adaptive theories, phylogenetic models can, at least to some extent, help us to better grasp constraints affecting historical processes, but they cannot provide complete explanations.
This book is not easy reading. Many distinctions and nuances need to be followed in detail to learn about opportunities and limits of current theories on cultural evolution. There are few original contributions, most of the book being concerned with testing and evaluating other authors’ models. However, it is an important book that helps to clarify a very sensitive field affecting in many ways social and human sciences. Indeed the recorded conclusions are very instructive and invite some applications. The first one is general and concerns how cultural activities cannot be reduced to sheer biological ones, even if biological knowledge and factors are important and a component that should not be ignored. This means that a good knowledge of human cultural phenomena requires a true interdisciplinary engagement, the recommended ‘eclectic approach’.
The second application is more concrete and concerns the new scientific study of religion, especially what is called ‘Cognitive Science of Religion’. Those who are familiar with its developments can recognize how many of the basic tenets have been targets of strong criticism by Lewens’ review. If he is right, then a large part of that cognitive endeavor needs deep revision, since the program did rely – and still does – on biological explanations of religion as a cultural entity. Even recent attempts to account for the cultural and historical dimension try to explain it in very reductive ways, neglecting many factors involved in religious evolution. In that sense, Lewen’s book should be read together with Radek Kundt’s Contemporary Evolutionary  Theories  of  Culture  and  the  Study  of  Religion,  reviewed above. The latter was published a few months later and covers similar ground, but is more focused on the study of religion, and arrives at analogous conclusions about it.

It is expected that this book might contribute to a better balance in the relationship between sciences and humanities, something urgently needed after many unfortunate excesses. That balance will be the result of more – not less – rational understanding, or deeper knowledge in our research and dialogue between science and theology.


Lluis Oviedo

Antonianum University, Rome

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 26:3 (September 2016), pp. 39-42.