Tag Archives: culture

The Edge Question 2

In the last post I looked at some answers to this year’ Edge Question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement. (here) I agreed with those. This post is about some responses to the Edge Question that I disagree with.


There are two answers that deal with ‘culture’ – this is it, just culture; they use the single word ‘culture‘ to answer the question of what scientific idea should be retired. Betzig is against the idea that culture is something superzoological (that) shapes the course of human events. Boyer is against the use of culture to explain material phenomena— representations and behaviors—in terms of a non-material entity. So the culture they complain about is ether non-biological or even non-material. Personally, I do not believe that it is possible to understand human behaviour without the concept of culture (or something very similar with a different name). Both of these responders are anthropologists and so they may be coming from an environment where there is an over-use of culture as an explanation. If so, I would say that we need not throw out the baby with the bath water. First I will give their ideas a good airing, before countering some of their arguments.


Laura Betzig (Anthropologist; Historian)


Betzig put an historical case for viewing human civilizations as mechanism of ruler’s reproductive success. “What if the 100,000-odd year-old evidence of human social life—from the arrowheads in South Africa, to the Venus figurines at Dordogne—is the effect of nothing, more or less, but our efforts to become parents?  What if the 10,000-odd year-old record of civilization—from the tax accounts at temples in the Near East, to the inscription on a bronze statue in New York Harbor—is the product of nothing, more or less, but our struggle for genetic representation in future generations?”


The history is interesting and has a lot of credibility. Next is a jump to a different use of the word culture. “CULTURE is a 7-letter word for GOD. Good people—some of the best, and intelligent people—some of the smartest, have found meaning in religion: they have faith that something supernatural guides what we do. Other good, intelligent people have found meaning in culture: they believe that something superzoological shapes the course of human events. Their voices are often beautiful; and it’s wonderful to be part of a chorus. But in the end, I don’t get it. For me, the laws that apply to animals apply to us. And in that view of life, there is grandeur enough.”


Pascal Boyer (Anthropologist and Psychologist, Washington University in St. Louis; Author, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought)


Boyer takes aim at exactly what culture is. “Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that does not mean that we can have a science of trees. … the notion is of no use to scientists… Don’t get me wrong—we can and should engage in a scientific study of ‘cultural stuff’. Against the weird obscurantism of many traditional sociologists, historians or anthropologists, human behavior and communication can and should be studied in terms of their natural causes. But this does not imply that there will or should be a science of culture in general….When we say that some notion or behavior is “cultural”, we are just saying that it bears some similarity to notions and behaviors of other people. That is a statistical fact. It does not tell us much about the processes that caused that behavior or notion.”


But all this is not news. So why is Boyer trying to rid science of culture. “Is the idea of culture really a Bad Thing? Yes, a belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups—what ought to be the domain of social sciences.”


It seems that these are not pleas to retire culture from science. They are something else, some other complaint about how culture is studied or used or something. Boyer’s comment that ‘culture’ is only a statistical similarity is true but so is ‘species’. Species cannot be understood as something divorced from the rest of science and is only a statistical similarity between real individual animals. But species is a concept within science and a very useful one. Similarly, culture is a statistical similarity between real individual animals. Culture likewise is a useful concept within science. How exactly would we go about examining behavior without using the concept of culture. Betzig seems to be saying that using the concept of culture will mean denying we are animals. But biology is also studying culture in some other animals as well as humans. Culture is not a good answer to the question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement? The word culture is being used as a scientific concept where it is useful, or it is being used as something else in which case it is not scientific. Culture as a scientific idea is not bypassing biology but part of it. Put as a dull, semantic thing – there can be more than one way to view culture and there is at least one way of viewing culture that we actually need in science.


Another response that I didn’t agree with was Lombrozo’s, she wanted to retire “the mind is just the brain”. This again seems to be a semantic problem but in this case an important rather than a dull one.


Tania Lombrozo (Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of California)


Lombrozo starts with a clear denial of dualism. “In fact, it appears the mind is just the brain. Or perhaps, to quote Marvin Minsky, “the mind is what the brain does.” But then comes a switch. “In our enthusiasm to find a scientifically-acceptable alternative to dualism, some of us have gone too far the other way, adopting a stark reductionism. Understanding the mind is not just a matter of understanding the brain.” To illustrate ‘stark reductionism’ she gives us a discussion of cake baking which I have read over and over and cannot understand what it is saying about reductionism. If mind is what the brain does, then we can try and understand mind and understand how brain does it. This is how reduction works. And when we try and understand brain we will, of course, also try and understand how cellular physiology does cells and so on down to quarks. There are hierarchies in any science and there are ways of understanding/studying/theorizing that are best suited to each level and each level tries to fit on the understanding of the one beneath it. What is the problem with this? Why is this not reductionism. Or (as it obviously is reductionism) why is reductionism not acceptable?


The third answer that struck me as wrong was Waytz response, “humans are by nature social animals”. Again it is a semantic problem. He seems to think social-animal means nice-social-animal.


Adam Waytz (Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University)


Waytz states how social we are and then puts limits on it. “Certainly sociality is a dominant force that shapes thought, behavior, physiology, and neural activity. However, enthusiasm over the social brain, social hormones, and social cognition must be tempered with evidence that being social is far from easy, automatic, or infinite.” He finds that in experiments people have to view the situation with a social context to react socially. This does not seem surprising. “Humans may be ready and willing to view the world through a social lens, but they do not do so automatically.” True, they do it in what they see as a social context.


Our social nature is not infinite. “Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to consider others’ minds, to empathize with others’ needs, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities readily, easily, or equally. We engage in acts of loyalty, moral concern, and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but do so at the expense of people outside of those circles. Our altruism is not unbounded; it is parochial.” True, but is there any social animal that extends its empathy easily outside its actual social groups, not wolves, chimps, elephants or bees. I cannot think of any. And finally he says, “At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important.” If we are not social animals then why would we live in societies?


This is the end of the semantic nit-picking. The next post will be back to positive reactions.



What can be learned from social animals

orpheusMany would have us believe that it is a disadvantage is be social, generous, trusting, cooperative, unselfish or whatever it is called. But it is not a disadvantage, it is an advantage. Cooperation comes with costs like having to control cheaters but it is a very old and successful strategy. In this third post in the animal series, I look at social animals.



Comparative Neuro-biology 3: What can be learned from social animals?



Before we look at social animals, let’s look at very ancient cooperation. The difference between eucaryote cells and prokaryote ones is enormous. Prokaryotes such as bacteria are essentially just a lipid bag of water, salts, proteins, nucleic acid and carbohydrates. They have very limited internal structure and therefore very limited control over their metabolism. Eukaryote cells are also essentially a lipid bag but inside the bag there are many other bags. The DNA is inside a bag (the nucleus) and so access to it is controlled. The engines that burn sugar for energy are each in their own bags (the mitochondria) and the membranes are essential to the process of reaping energy. And so it goes for photosynthesis, protein manufacture, export from the cell and so on. How did eukaryote cells evolve? It seems to be that simple cells cooperated and eventually became so dependent on each other that they merged into a single more complex entity – one with extremely sophisticated control mechanism.


Eukaryotic cells differ from prokaryotic cells by their more complex intracellular organisation. Distinct cellular processes are compartmentalised. This improves efficiency but a problem emerges. Different compartments need to exchange specific molecules and certain molecules need to be exported to the cell exterior. Since most molecules are too large to directly pass through membranes, a mechanism is required to deliver the cargo. The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Dr. James E. Rothman, Dr. Randy W. Schekman and Dr. Thomas C. Südhof for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells. This represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how the eukaryotic cell, with its complex internal compartmentalisation, organises the routing of molecules packaged in vesicles to various intracellular destinations, as well as to the outside of the cell.” (Nobel press release)



So… cooperation in biology is very ancient and is the foundation of multicellular organisms: plants, animals and fungi. But the idea of multicellular organisms itself requires cooperation. The individual cells have to give up any selfish sovereignty to the organism. The cells, tissues and organs have to cooperate or the organism dies. By staying and working together they can live outside the ocean on dry land, eat many more varied foods and all the other things that plants and animals can do that bacteria cannot. Every once in a while some cell goes maverick and attempts to escape the multicellular restriction and we have a cancer. Most cells do not make it to the stage of a cancer because the organism has methods of finding and killing cells that cheat. Cellular slime molds are right on the edge of the divide between multicellular and single celled organisms. How do they deal with cheaters?


Much of what we know about the evolution of altruism comes from animals. Here, we show that studying a microbe has yielded unique insights, particularly in understanding how social cheaters are controlled. The social stage of Dictylostelium discoideum occurs when the amoebae run out of their bacterial prey and aggregate into a multicellular, motile slug. This slug forms a fruiting body in which about a fifth of cells die to form a stalk that supports the remaining cells as they form hardy dispersal-ready spores. Because this social stage forms from aggregation, it is analogous to a social group, or a chimeric multicellular organism, and is vulnerable to internal conflict. Advances in cell labeling, microscopy, single-gene knockouts, and genomics, as well as the results of decades of study of D. discoideum as a model for development, allow us to explore the genetic basis of social contests and control of cheaters in unprecedented detail. Cheaters are limited from exploiting other clones by high relatedness, kin discrimination, pleiotropy (multiple effects of a gene), noble resistance, and lottery-like role assignment. The active nature of these limits is reflected in the elevated rates of change in social genes compared with nonsocial genes. Despite control of cheaters, some conflict is still expressed in chimeras, with slower movement of slugs, slightly decreased investment in stalk compared with spore cells, and differential contributions to stalk and spores. D. discoideum is rapidly becoming a model system of choice for molecular studies of social evolution.” (Strassmann 2011)



Then there is symbiosis. Organisms that are separate but live in intimate contact – corals and lichens for example. Lichens are an association of an algae and a fungus – they are successful on rocks that support nothing else. Corals are an association of the invertebrate coral polyp and an algae – its reef colonies are the foundation of a very successful ecosystem (at least until recent ocean changes). There are a lot of different types and degrees of symbiosis. It is a successful way of life.



Social insects (ants, termites, bees, wasps) are amazingly successful. Their cooperation is very evident and the obvious reason for their success. The social vertebrates are also successful. Throughout biology, where ever we look we find cooperation. From the tiny cells and their physiology, to organisms, to cooperating organisms, even to ecosystems, we find cooperation succeeds. So when someone says that cooperation is a strategy that fails – they are wrong. The proof that cooperation works is all around us. What are the game theorists missing?


With new insights into the classical game theory match-up known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” University of Pennsylvania biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature. …The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a way of studying how individuals choose whether or not to cooperate. In the game, if both players cooperate, they both receive a payoff. If one cooperates and the other does not, the cooperating player receives the smallest possible payoff, and the defecting player the largest. If both players do not cooperate, they receive a payoff, but it is less than what they would gain if both had cooperated. In other words, it pays to cooperate, but it can pay even more to be selfish…After simulating how some generous strategies would fare in an evolving population, Steward and Plotkin crafted a mathematical proof showing that, not only can generous strategies succeed in the evolutionary version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in fact these are the only approaches that resist defectors over the long term. “Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” Plotkin said. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones.”…. “When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.” “We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart said. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”(Steward 2013)



(Aside: I have to say that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not life. When there is a supposed simulation of the real world, the question to ask is exactly when and where this is a valid simulation rather than a useless mathematical/logical formula. That cooperation works and is wide-spread is an established fact, why this might be is the question that the game/simulation research is about.)



The problem with the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a model is that there is no communication and communication is key to cooperation. All the examples of cooperation have some level of communication. It can be physical contact, chemical exchanges, smells, visual signs, sounds; but there must be communication, an awareness of what the partner/s are doing. Communication is necessary for a level of ‘trust’, including the identification of a partner as legitimate at its simplest. No communication; no trust; no cooperation. Communication is not some little add-on but something important that living things do, internally and externally.



There are very impressive examples of cooperation in mammals, especially the hunting strategies of various dogs, cats and dolphins. We find that social mammals have ways of communicating that are similar to our non-verbal communication – no real difference of kind. Probably the oldest non-verbal channel is posture. When I used to give talks on non-verbal communication, I would point out that the different between taking an upright, head up stance and taking a low, head down stance is extremely old and very obvious in reptiles as well as birds and mammals. The tall pose is aggressive and the crouching pose is submissive. Postural communication is very clear in dogs, horses, primates – and that includes humans. The dog’s play-bow is a good example. It says, “What I do now is not meant to be taken seriously, it is just play. Come play with me.” Posture even can work between species. Apparently it works for huskies and polar bears, as has been shown on YouTube. “Here comes a wild polar bear cut off from his normal seal diet by the water-not-yet-ice … he comes upon a husky tethered in the snow … it looks like lunch time for the bear. … It is not hostility being exchanged between these two… note the the polar bear’s eyes are soft, the husky’s ears are back, his hair is flat and his mouth is open without showing fangs – just a few moments before, as the bear came into view, the husky was in a crouched (play) bow and a wagging tail… something beside attack is on their minds… two carnivores facing each other and, instead of a bear’s predatory attack to feed his hunger, something magical happens” … (see pictures at nifplay below)



I could give a long list of animal communications including everything from bacteria to apes but I will not. I think anyone would agree that communication is common among animals. The point I am making is that without communication we cannot have cooperation and without cooperation we cannot have social groups. Without social groups, we do not have culture. Culture is the big prize. Culture is what humans have in abundance and other social animals have only small amounts of. Culture is what allows us to visit the moon. We have an explosion of culture and that is because we have a great advance in communication, our languages.



Why do other animals such as the apes have communication and cooperation and even a little culture, but they do not have language and with it no explosion of culture? We could just throw up our hands and say, “that’s evolution”. But actually it is a very serious question. When we have chimps and bonobos in captivity and familiar with humans, it is possible to teach them rudimentary language using hand signs or computer tools. So it seems it should have been possible for them to have developed protolanguage and then like humans to have found it so useful that both biological and cultural evolution would have favoured it. But this did not happen. There are a number of other animals that ‘might’ have developed language but didn’t, although they have extension communication and cooperation – elephants and dolphins come to mind.



Blair Bolles in his blog Babel’s Dawn examined the origin of language for about 7 years. He came very close to the heart of the problem in the ideas: that language is dangerous as well as advantageous; and, that group evolution is possible. It is not always in an individual’s best interests to share secrets, let alone broadcast them. Animal communication seems to be limited to very stereotyped messages. Given non-group evolution it may be impossible for language to be selected for because it is often not to the individuals advantage. It is very difficult to show group selection in biological traits but cultural evolution is very obviously a result of group selection (it being groups and not individuals that have culture). We are talking about a little jump from the realm of predominately biological evolution to predominately social evolution. The bonobo is on the one side of that gap and we are on the other.


We know that captive chimpanzees can learn to use words and phrases but in the wild they never tell one another anything. They communicate to control. This kind of discretion is easy to explain in terms of individual selection. A chimpanzee who knows where there will be some ripe fruit has an advantage over its fellows. A chimpanzee who blabs his news has given up an advantage. The fitness score of the chimpanzee who keeps secrets is almost certainly higher than the blabbermouth’s score. Thus, even though groups might benefit from language, it is not going to evolve among chimpanzees. This kind of reasoning makes it easy to explain why language never evolved with other species, and hard to explain why humans have such a hard time keeping secrets. (see Bolles’ post below)



We have come full circle: communication facilitates cooperation, which facilitates culture, which facilitates communication and cooperation.



Image: Orpheus charming the animals by Jacob Savery




Eukaryote controls – Press releases about Nobel Awards


Strassmann JE, Queller DC; Evolution of cooperation and control of cheating in a social microbe; Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A 2011, 108 Suppl 2:10855.62. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102451108




University of Pennsylvania material (2013), Biologists show that generosity leads to evolutionary success http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130902162716.htm


Play signals – http://nifplay.org/polar-husky.html


Origins of language – http://www.babelsdawn.com/babels_dawn/2012/07/language-serves-the-group.html