And molluscs fly… !?! The limits of memetic complex Panglossianism (intro)

But then the Church came to the front, with an axe to grind; and she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat–or a nation

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

hat tip.1


In an earlier post I have argued that the reference to Darwinian variation and selection constitutes a commonly missed link between Max Weber’s “idealist” argument in the Protestant Ethic and Marxian “materialism”. Exploring this link may be helpful in salvaging Weber’s approach (if not his entire argument) by integrating it into a reformulated base/superstructure concept. I have acknowledged W. G. Runciman for being about the only prominent Weber interpreter who spotted Weber’s application of a Darwinian argument, but pointed out that he both overplays and underplays his hand. He overplays it in that he makes Weber yet another witness in his project of an all-and-out selectionist-adaptationist comparative sociology to parallel evolutionary biology, with socio-cultural ‘memes’ taking the place of genes and cultures and societies supplementing the natural environment as selecting agents. The commitment to the notion of ‘memes’ ironically also means that he cannot make full use of insights from evolutionary biology and genetics about the complexities in the translation of genotypes into phenotypes, convergent and parallel evolution. My initial objection to Runciman, arising from reading his two articles (2001, 2005a) relating Weber and Darwin, was therefore that in rewriting Weber’s argument as a purely selectionist one, he discards the implications of the famous metaphor of “elective affinities” and the entanglement of individual choice and social fate, reflection and intuition that it hints to. He also cuts of the potentially productive ties to Marxian theorising in that, in dismissing the cultural-sociological approach that Weber justified by his reference to Darwin2 which would make for an adequate reformulation of the base/superstructure dialectic.

In a response to Joseph Fracchia and R. C. Lewontin’s (1999) all-out critique of evolutionism in the social sciences Runciman (2005b) rejects claims that his theory amounted to a “Panglossian” scenario in which every single historical fact, cultural expression or social institution could be explained as an adaptation in an ever improving world. And indeed he had already asserted earlier, with reference to Stephen Jay Gould and Lewontin’s (1979) critique of Panglossianism in biological evolutionary theory, that

Just because (as the paradigm does imply) competitive selection under environmental pressure is the only force capable of accounting for evolutionary change, it does not follow that every observed characteristic must have a selective value.’ (Runciman 1998: 171)

This statement makes clear the claim of evolutionary sociology, namely to explain historical shifts and general directions of development rather than the specifics of any historically given society. Fracchia and Lewontin (1999: 59f.) counter this claim with reference to Althusserian philosophy – a problematic defence given the outright anti-historical and anti-empirical tendency of his structural Marxism (see E. P. Thompson’s 1978 devastating critique). In fact, we will see that evolutionary sociology fits the bill of both Liberal (Parsonsian) and Marxist (Althusserian) structuralism since here, too, structure is imposed by selection:

Nevertheless, although random empirical behavior is not theoretically part of the system, if such behavior leads to major structural changes, then it is interpreted as the structure itself which “made way” (or created a “niche”) for the behavior. In other words, it is assumed that the structure, in theory, is always already constituted of the social conditions which arise within it. That is, behavior may be random, but if “selected,” it was structurally determined.’ (DiTomaso 1982: 22)

In this paper I am more interested in the proposed mechanics of cultural and social evolution as my interest is to salvage the utility of deploying Darwinian arguments in specific cases (such as the relation between religion and economic behaviour in the early stages of capitalist development) from the overbearing claims of an evolutionary sociology that privileges such instances as the only developments of historical relevance. As Lewontin is an early collaborator of Stephen Jay Gould in the formulation of the critique of the ‘adaptationist programme’ (Gould/Lewontin 1979), Fracchia and Lewontin’s attack on evolutionism in the historical and social sciences reflects much of the critique of ultra-Darwinism that has hence been associated with Gould (1997a, 1997b).

However inconclusive the 2005 clash between him and Fracchia and Lewontin in the journal History and Theory was how successful his defence is, particularly as both sides downscale their claims so that the former feel the need to assert the reader that they do think that there is some role for selectionist arguments in the social sciences (Fracchia/Lewontin 2005: 16), while the latter asserts repeatedly that his ‘selectionist theory’ does not account for everything in terms of adaptation but ‘accommodates both maladaptations and “exaptations” (Runciman 2009: 46). In the summa of his evolutionary theory of cultural and social selection, which makes no reference to the brush with Fracchia and Lewontin a few years earlier, Runciman (2009) now claims to have integrated precisely those apparently contradicting phenomena from evolutionary biology that Fracchia and Lewontin (1999, 2005) muster up against cultural evolutionism: catastrophic events, punctuated equilibriums, exaptations (‘spandrels’). Runciman also specifically acknowledges parallel evolution (i.e. the development of identical phenotypes out of different genotypes, or in the case of cultural evolution, memes). The question is whether the way he integrates them actually saves his claim that evolutionary arguments are not just to play a role in historical and comparative sociology but should be the master concept.

In the following I will proceed in three steps. First I will make a short case for including selection among the plurality of explanatory “cranes” that allow us to displace the legacy of theological and metaphysical “skyhooks” that even the Marxist view of history has inherited from its Christian predecessor (Löwith 1949). Secondly I will reject Runciman’s assertions that he has indeed accommodated Gould’s objections to ultra-Darwinism. Instead, I will argue, they are integrated in a way to simply afford a more complex Panglossianism which makes itself even more evidence-proof than the biological Panglossianism Gould and Lewontin initially targeted in 1979. Thirdly I will restate my objection that Runciman takes the edge off the Darwinian argument in that he does not make use of the fact that where selection works it works on phenotypes and only indirectly on the generative structures that produce them. The possibility of parallel evolution (i.e. different ways to come to similar results) is only acknowledged so that the necessity of examining those generative structures can be denied – it is selective pressures that functionally explain phenotypes and what produces them can be safely left in the black box that is the human mind. My point will be that what’s inside the box does matter because, like the phyletic constraints in biological evolution, generative structures like cognitive schemata, imaginative skills, theoretical habits etc. determine developmental potential, both by setting certain limits and by opening (and even suggesting) certain opportunities. My final point will be that when looking at those generative structures the parallel to genomes that Runciman, following Richard Dawkins (1989: 189ff.), reduces to strings of information and behavioural programmes under the title ‘memes’. The central properties of these memes (which justify the parallel to genes) are replication and mutation – i.e. they are copied and passed on between individuals and the process of copying is precise enough to ensure some stability (inheritance, tradition) and some variation (recombination, new ideas). I will argue that in any version the idea of self-replicating memes cannot account for the way that ideas, beliefs, practices etc. are passed on because the notion of replication does not capture the process even of simple and plain imitation, which always involves creativity, reflection and meaning. The cultural sociology required to understand phenomena relished by self-declared memeticists such as fashion, popular music or advertising, let alone the more existential issue of religion therefore cannot be reduced to enslavement by replicators. While most followers of memetics, including its inventor (Dawkins 1989: 200) insist on the limitation of the power of replicators (both genes and memes) by the possibilities of reflection, Susan Blackmore (1999) has stringently argue that anything but such enslavement is inconsistent with genetic/memetic explanations of culture, no matter how memes are defined. Against this I will argue that what looks like memetic replication itself cannot be conceived of in any other terms but reflection.

to be completed… #wachthisspace  (author busy earning a living)

1 The need to revisit the debate between Runciman and Fracchia/Lewontin became clear to me thanks to a short conversation with Çağlar Karaca after a talk I’ve given at Exeter in last spring and after reading his paper ‘Criticism of Memes / Reconsidering Cultural Evolution’ (Karaca there targets mainly the lack of historical perspective in memetics).

2 In effect Weber presents culture (in the specific case: theology) as the functional equivalent of the genome which provides for the variation from which the functional equivalent for nature, material conditions (in the specific case: the capitalist economy) then selects the types that are adapted enough to survive those conditions

Marx – Darwin – Weber

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew,

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew

It is often noted that Marx was a great admirer of Darwin, but it has been rarely explored what he actually took from him into his own theory, let alone put to productive use by his followers. There are exceptions, though. Mark Warren (1987: 258) shows that Marx thought of technological progress as well as cultural change in terms of a Darwinian mechanism in which an environment (natural or human-made) poses survival conditions to innovations. The difference, of course, is that the way that the variations that then are either selected or de-selected quasi-naturally come about in different ways:

‘The source of innovation and change comes from human beings who more or less intentionally create new ways of doing things, for any variety of reasons. Marx refers to this process as ‘invention’ (Erfindung). He places the term in quotation marks when referring to natural processes to indicate that creativity is intentional in humans, but not in nature. […] For human inventions, the environment consists in existing technologies and skills (forces of production), together with various social relations of production. This social and technological environment selects for certain inventions while condemning others to obsolescence. According to this interpretation, for example, in a capitalist society an invention or skill can survive and be transmitted to future generations only if it meets with the selective criteria of Marx’s base-superstructure model – assuming, of course, that the model correctly describes the constraints and possibilities of the social and natural environment.’