[xmca] culture in evolution

From: Jay Lemke (jaylemke@umich.edu)
Date: Fri Jan 12 2007 - 18:55:53 PST

I get a bit uneasy with the notion that culture influences evolution
or phylogeny, as if culture were itself somehow outside evolution and
phylogenesis, an external factor that can impinge upon and influence.

Mike's use of a notion of co-construction or co-evolution is better,
but people might have a think about how to frame these issues if we
recognize that human social systems are just aspects of ecosystems,
that human communities and their environments ARE ecosystems, but
with some key aspects that ecologists don't otherwise consider, like
semiotic activity that assigns meanings to things which mediate how
people interact with them ecologically (plants, animals, minerals,
water -- think grains vs weeds, wolves vs cows, gold vs granite,
Evian vs tapwater).

How did ecosystems with lots of semiosis evolve (types evolve,
instances develop) from ecosystems with relatively little (it's
debatable whether any complex system, certainly a biological one,
operates with no semiosis at all -- depends a bit on your threshold
definition for semiosis) ? that's a somewhat different question from
'how did culture evolve?', and maybe it's one that has an answer.

So, then, how do the cultural (i.e. semiotic) aspects of ecosystem
processes interact with other aspects (thermodynamic, biochemical,
trophic, etc.)? and how do these patterns of interaction change over
long timescales in ways that are characteristic of _types_ of
social-semiotic-ecosystems, and not just of individual systems (which
is development, however long it takes, not evolution).

Phylogeny can be used as a loose synonym for evolution, or it can
mean the informational lineage running through time and connecting to
a species or an individual organism -- its 'pedigree' over the LONG
haul (i.e. back to the first mammals for us, the first vertebrates,
the first multicellulars, the first eukaryotes, the first "life").
But it's really a pretty old-fashioned idea, because no species or
its members evolves in isolation from its interactions with all the
others in its ecosystem, despite the fact that the current prestige
of molecular genetics tends to make its molecular-level models of
these pedigrees impressive. But they are just an outcome, a marker
standing in for something much more complex and macro-scale (or
multi-scale, if you believe, as I do, that natural selection is not
the whole story), and they can't tell you WHY we see the sequences we
do (nor predict them).

If we continue, culturally, to modify ecosystems and
organisms/genomes more and more, without accidentally editing
ourselves out of the picture, then the coupling of "culture" and the
other aspects may become strong enough that they can't be usefully
conceptually separated anymore. When the only ecosystems left consist
entirely of designed or engineered species and their planned and
modified interactions, then the informational lineage, whether marked
by DNA or design schematics, will be one and the same. This will not
represent culture taking over evolution from the outside, but rather
the merging of cultural evolution with the other aspects of evolution
on the inside.


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Email. JayLemke@UMich.edu
Website. <http://www.umich.edu/~jaylemke%A0>www.umich.edu/~jaylemke
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