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Biotech Science

Natural Selection Can Act on Human Culture 239

Hugh Pickens writes "Scientists at Stanford University have shown for the first time that the process of natural selection can act on human cultures as well as on genes. The team studied reports of canoe designs from 11 Oceanic island cultures, evaluating 96 functional features that could contribute to the seaworthiness of the vessels. Statistical test results showed clearly that the functional canoe design elements changed more slowly over time, indicating that natural selection could be weeding out inferior new designs. Authors of the study said their results speak directly to urgent social and environmental problems. 'People have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term through unsustainable approaches such as inequity and excess consumption. But this is not going to work in the long term,' said Deborah S. Rogers, a research fellow at Stanford."
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Natural Selection Can Act on Human Culture

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  • Memetics? (Score:5, Informative)

    by nickovs ( 115935 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:01AM (#22452396)
    Isn't this just memetics [] in action?
  • by talljosh ( 1240964 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:40AM (#22452530)

    But seriously, this approach on first glance says to me that these scientists don't understand the word natural in the term Natural Selection, and probably don't understand scientific method very well either.

    Based on my understanding of the biological process of natural selection, natural selection would roughly translate in this instance to the boats which are most well-suited for thir environment surviving long enough to reproduce while those less well-suited dying off before they can breed.
    I agree: the observations would seem to be better explained by good design practices than by some form of natural selection.
  • Re:Memetics? (Score:3, Informative)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:20AM (#22452664) Homepage

    Memetics is a fun term. As a qualitative notion, it makes some intuitive sense. But what the article mentions is work that was quantitative (it compared functional vs. decorative features and their rate of change), and hence actually scientific.

    With all respect, what in the hell are you talking about? To paraphrase the Wikipedia entry, Memetics is an approach to creating models for cultural information transfer. You know, just like natural selection is an approach to creating models for evolution. Of course it's not "quantitative"; it's a model for understanding the quantitative data.

    The point is that memetics is not amenable to quantitative analysis. In other words, you can't derive hypotheses that you can test, unlike genetic evolution, which has been proven many times over. By studying cultural/mental content, memetics has a far more elusive target.

    But it's not impossible. The research we are told about in TFA in fact does that, it (finally) does a serious quantitative study of cultural evolution, a field that until now has been almost entirely about qualitative claims, e.g., "religion is a virus". That might be true, but it isn't testable, hence it isn't scientific in the way that genetic evolution is. (If you believe I am wrong, please supply a reference to a rigorous scientific investigation of memetics, i.e., a quantitative one; thanks in advance.)

    I hope this helps.
  • Re:Memetics? (Score:3, Informative)

    by It'sYerMam ( 762418 ) <> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:42AM (#22452778) Homepage
    You do you realise you can make qualitative predictions, don't you? If I burn calcium, I can predict it will burn red, even if I don't know what wavelength it will be. More relevant, Tiktaalik was a qualitative prediction, as was the appearance of human chromosome 2 - two qualitative predictions very important in the field of evolution.
  • Re:Evolution/design (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:42AM (#22452780)
    A lot of people seem to be confused about what "evolution" is. Evolution is the theory that, in a population with variation in its traits, any of those traits that are advantageous will tend to be reinforced over time. It doesn't say anything about genetics or mutation, and it certainly doesn't say that monkeys can give birth to humans. It doesn't care what the traits are, as long as they can be passed from generation to generation. If tall people can reach and gather more fruit, then tallness will be reinforced. If short people figure out they can climb the tree and gather even more fruit, then climbing will be reinforced. If some group [] decides that celibacy is good behavior, they're not likely to pass that trait on to their progeny.

    Evolution was scary at first because it introduced a process that could lead to specialization, and speciation, without every organism having to have been created from whole cloth. Now, even the creationists and ID people believe that tall parents will have tall children, and the scary part of evolution is the lie that your great grandmother was a rhesus monkey.

    Saying that the preservation of "good traits" canoes is evolution of canoes is silly because it's not the canoes that are evolving. Canoes pass no traits on to their progeny because they don't have progeny. The preservation of canoe traits is evidence of evolution in the creator of the canoe. "Evolution" in this sense is a metaphor.
  • Except (Score:3, Informative)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @01:16PM (#22454172) Journal
    > "Scientists at Stanford University have shown for the first time...

    But only if you ignore the fields of evolutionary anthropology, sociocultural evolution and human sociobiology.

"My sense of purpose is gone! I have no idea who I AM!" "Oh, my God... You've.. You've turned him into a DEMOCRAT!" -- Doonesbury