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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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  • Long-term (Score:4, Insightful)

    by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:19AM (#22452462) Homepage

    Unfortunately, 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.
    Oh, it'll work out very well in the long term, that is, assuming the entire race isn't annihilated. The most sustainable cultures on Earth will survive. I think the quoted researcher meant to say medium term.
  • by syousef ( 465911 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:28AM (#22452488) Journal
    Natural selection, vs Intelligent boat design: The new debate

    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. I mean for fuck sake, human beings have time and time again built bigger and better designs over time in many areas. Anything that can be engineered. Boats, Bridges, Buildings. You name it. That's nothing new. Misapplying statistical analysis, based on fitness criteria with 20/20 hindsight sounds like junk science. to me.

    (Note: I do not have time to read the article right now and I'm having to assume the summary is accurate...which in itself ain't very scientific. Perhaps I'll take a look at the actual article tomorrow).
  • by Cairnarvon ( 901868 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:42AM (#22452532) Homepage
    That's a beautifully convoluted straw man you have there.

    Nobody's saying evolution necessarily implies a lack of a designer.
    In the case of the evolution of life, we're saying a designer is not necessary at all to explain what we're seeing, and in fact introducing a designer creates a whole host of new problems that need answering without adding any value.

    If you want to imply a designer, the burden of proof is on you to provide evidence. Until someone can point to something that couldn't have arisen without intervention from a designer (irreducible complexity in a real sense, I suppose; the examples the ID movement has brought on have all been debunked, though), invoking one is just bad science.
  • Re:Memetics? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:46AM (#22452554) Homepage

    Isn't this just memetics [] in action?
    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. If you must talk using terms like 'memetics', then you might say that this research is important in that it finally brings some quantitative investigation into memetics instead of the usual 'just-so' stories.

    That said, whether the researchers' results can support their wild speculation at the end of TFA (connecting their research to global warming, religious fundamentalism, and what have you) is another thing. Such speculation is silly.
  • by Hope Thelps ( 322083 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @08:59AM (#22452584)

    People have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term through unsustainable approaches such as inequity and excess consumption.

    Nonsense. People haven't "learned to avoid natural selection", they've been subject to it. In the short term natural selection has favoured these "unsustainable approaches" which have helped in providing decent life expectancy and thus breeding opportunities for billions of people, in the long term natural selection may not favour this approach (by definition, it won't if they are in fact unsustainable). That's natural selection at work. There is no avoiding it.
  • Re:Hmmm (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jellomizer ( 103300 ) * on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:02AM (#22452594)
    returning to your roots is in the step in the wrong direction. We need to dedicate resources to finding better energy solutions and toanahe our human resources better. If we had the population today and everyone has horses it would be even more of an enviromemtal nightmare. The car when invented was considered an enviromemtal inovation.
  • by edwardpickman ( 965122 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:19AM (#22452654)
    Technology has been a boon to nature selection. The less survival worthy seem to find testing the limits of technology irresistable. Their valiant attempts to test those limits is helping to insure the security of the gene pool. If we really want to improve the gene pool we need to go wide with a TV show, "American Darwin". The contestants compete to come up with the most extreme way to commit suicide on national TV. No takers? Obviously you haven't seen Jackass.
  • by europa universalis ( 1081469 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:27AM (#22452698)

    So if I get this right... the outcome of their research is that over time, pacific islanders tried to make better and better boats?
    By not changing features that worked well and changing features that failed?
    Doesn't natural selection have to be done by nature for it to be natural?
    Isn't this just selection?

    For what it's worth, I suspect that the original paper had to do with the applicability of the mathematical models for predicting the rate of change, or something. To imply that divergence was shaped by a winnowing process during migration from island to island, they would have demonstrate that the alterations under consideration actually had improved seaworthiness. Otherwise, the divergence is just random drift, and it's just a demonstration that the pacific islanders knew what the critical elements of outrigger design were, and didn't mess with them too much. Saying that "natural selection could be weeding out inferior new designs" is just saying "shucks, we didn't disprove our hypothesis."

    [previously on the 'firehose' thingy by accident, whatever that is]
  • by argent ( 18001 ) <peter&slashdot,2006,taronga,com> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:31AM (#22452718) Homepage Journal
    It's amazing how smart people can be so daft. Of course the same forces apply in many fields. In biology it's called "natural selection", in economics it's called "the market", in engineering it's the trend towards a design monoculture (whether it's the internal combustion engine or Windows). Hell, even Rush Limbaugh knows about economic Darwinism.

    The study itself is an interesting confirmation that market forces would lead to the same results over a long enough time period even when the available communication channels are biologically slow. But the conclusion that this is some kind of new revelation indicates to me that the communication channels between Stanford and the real world may also be biologically slow.
  • humbug (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ph0rk ( 118461 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @09:31AM (#22452720)
    I am beginning to grow less and less fond of the application of terms from evolutionary biology to the study of culture.

    In 99% of instances, cultural schemas do not need to be 'fit' in a darwinian sense to spread through diffusion or other processes - they can be spread due to power imbalance or just because whatever new widgets one makes once they follow the ways of whatever look cool.

    I suppose that "cultural evolution" is somewhat shorter than "culture change over time", but that does not mean that when using the former term we should try and treat it like biological evolution - it just doesn't follow. Assuming that getting to the island they can't see over the horizon but know are there is an urgent crisis, then yes, they will probably have a somewhat linear progression of canoe design, keeping the innovations that worked around longer. To assume otherwise is to assume the early Polynesians were idiots. Why this becomes a problem is it is difficult if not impossible to determine what the urgent issues are for past cultures, and you'll need a few more examples to make a stronger case.

    Even then, you may have an interesting theory about efficiency of design when under long-term pressure, but how the heck do you apply it to more ephemeral cultural components like religion or etiquette?
  • by 26199 ( 577806 ) * on Sunday February 17, 2008 @10:00AM (#22452872) Homepage

    The "natural selection" they are talking about is exactly the same for cultural traits as for genetic traits. Good traits => higher chance of host surviving and passing on said traits. Bad traits => lower chance of host surviving and passing on said traits. This clearly applies to canoe design, regardless of whether other factors are involved because of actual engineering work. It's inescapable that if you do something that kills you then you won't be around to teach others to do it.

    The important part is that they compare variation over time of functional and non-functional aspects of canoe design, and show that functional aspects have changed more slowly. They make the analogy to biological evolution where slower change is an indicator that the traits are being selected for, i.e. are subject to evolutionary pressure.

    At this point I don't know enough about either field to comment, and apparently it's a controversial idea, but it certainly seems to me to be an argument worthy of attention.

  • Re:Long-term (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AikonMGB ( 1013995 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @10:57AM (#22453262) Homepage

    I think you misunderstood the quoted researcher.

    Unfortunately, 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.

    (Emphasis mine). The researcher is saying that European/North-American/etc. culture is currently operating in an unsustainable way, and that this works in the short-term (i.e. we are "developing" and "improving" our lives), but that in the long-haul, any culture that hopes to survive must operate in a sustainable way. If they don't, they will consume all available resources until their way-of-life disintegrates around them.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2008 @12:19PM (#22453728)
    It's not NATURAL selection -- that denotes outside forces doing the culling. It's human choice driving design changes.

    The only natural selection that may be at work here is the drowning of crews that're too stupid to recognize their boat is full of holes.
  • Re:In other words (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Sunday February 17, 2008 @01:25PM (#22454248)


    Wow that was annoying wasnt it

    Um, no :p.

    What do you suggest for the 'fine-tuning' protocol?

    Natural selection. People who stay in good shape even when eating mainly junk food are more likely to find a mate and pass their genes on than the ones who turn into human balloons while their arteries jam.

    and why in hell should we adapt to require less excercise to stay in shape?(that *could* be translated into what the gp problary ment, but im betting thats not your point.)

    Because we aren't getting much excercise nowadays, so requiring less of it is an advantageus feature.

    The gp suggested that we'd evolve to tolerate the effects of being fat; I suggest it more likely that we evolve to not get fat in the first place, since that would require much less changes to our biochemistry (fine-tuning) than the ones required to support useless (in a post-industrial civilization) fat.

  • More correctly (Score:3, Insightful)

    by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {srevart.sirhc}> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @01:44PM (#22454446) Homepage Journal
    Postulating a designer poses fundamental problems for scientific epistomology without solving any problems.

    This means that the existance of a designer or lack thereof doesn't really have to do with the question of evolution. There may be a designer or not, but one cannot scientifically postulate one way or the other.

    ID states that an intelligent designer *is necessary* to explain certain things.
    Mainstream evolutionary theory states that an intelligent designer *is not necessary* to explain things. It does not postulate the lack of existance of such a designer though.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 17, 2008 @03:40PM (#22455338)
    Ahh, but, you see, to the really over-the-top environmentalists, when it's a pile of branches, mud, and other materials brought in by beavers to dam up a river to alter their environment to suit them better, it's nature at work, but when it's a pile of reinforced concrete and steel brought in by humans to dam up a river to alter their environment to suit them better, it's all artificial and inherently unnatural. Anything mankind touches that does not mesh imperceptibly with Nature is inherently bad and should be eliminated. I wonder what the answer would be if you asked these people whether they took any sort of medication when they got sick, or bathed, or brushed their teeth, or whether they respected the right of bacteria, viri, and fungi to exist without interference from humans...
  • Re:More correctly (Score:3, Insightful)

    by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {srevart.sirhc}> on Sunday February 17, 2008 @06:15PM (#22456426) Homepage Journal
    Only within scientific epistomology.

    Furthermore parsimony only says that one cannot postulate an intelligent designer without need. It does *not* state that one cannot exist simply because current data doesn't require one to explain. Hence it does not suggest that the matter is closed, just that it is not necessary based on what information we have at present.

    Invoking parsimony to attempt to prove the lack of existance of an intelligent designer would be like stating that various quantum particles didn't exist before we had a reason to suggest that they existed. Nothing in scientific epistomology suggests that things we don't have a present need to use to explain things don't exist.

    Hence postulating either the existance or lack thereof relating to an intelligent designer is unscientific.
  • by Bill Dog ( 726542 ) on Monday February 18, 2008 @06:06AM (#22460936) Journal
    From TFSummary:

    '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,'
    It sounds to me like what they're saying is that capitalism/freedom goes against the very laws of the universe and won't last much longer and then we'll all live according to leftist principles and finally be on track with the way we were meant to be. Gawd I'm glad I'm out of college and away from these intellectually-inbreeding socialist fucks.

"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