Cultural Dynamics: An Inside Job


In this blog post I will dig into the cultural aspect of sociocultural niche construction. I was concerned about adding my bit without burying it under an extensive set it up, but, fortunately, Zev Trachtenberg’s March 14 post on “The Human Climate” is exactly the introduction my contribution needs. Even better, Erle Ellis has commented on Trachtenberg’s post, making my exegetical task even easier. I will, therefore, skip any further preliminaries and proceed on the understanding that readers are familiar with Trachtenberg’s “The Human Climate” and the comments that follow it.

I follow Trachtenberg in distinguishing approaches to culture that are external/behavioral and those that are internal/ideological. Like Trachtenberg, I see Ellis as emphasizing the external aspects of culture – things like subsistence patterns, technology, and institutional arrangements (e.g., Ellis p. 30). These features are, no doubt, crucial for his project, but they don’t exhaust the content or importance of culture. Finally, I too wonder about what role the internal/ideological aspect of culture can play in a larger theory driven by (extended) natural selection processes that seem to be sensitive only to adaptive fitness. Trachtenberg addresses this issue in his second comment on his own post when he asks Ellis whether he means to treat consciousness as epiphenomenal. I am quite certain that internal mental states aren’t epiphenomenal (see below), so I am looking to see whether Ellis has left anything important out of his account.

Ellis starts to address Trachtenberg’s concerns in his first comment by pointing to his reliance on “structuration theory” to conceptualize relations between individuals and particular societies they inhabit. The basic story, as Ellis tells it, is that smart and ultra-social humans cooperate to solve (fitness?) problems (e.g., ensuring an adequate food supply). In doing so, they can, and often do, create new (fitness?) problems (e.g., pollution) that, in turn, provide more opportunities for cooperative problem solving. The role of culture in this account is to retain and transmit cooperative strategies (Ellis pp. 296-299). The traits of a particular society/culture will constrain the problem solving process without eliminating behavioral variability and unpredictability (Ellis, pp. 299-300). This is why Ellis – in his first comment on Trachtenberg’s “The Human Climate” – says that “humans are not robots running cultural software”: human agency operates within (and ultimately upon) the social context. Culture, then, serves to channel the behavior of individuals, giving each social group a trajectory that may differ from, or even combine with, the paths of other groups.

Ellis’ account of culture as a sort of framework for human action (and interaction) seems right as far as it goes. The point I want to add is that human cultures have their own internal dynamics that help to explain both how culturally embedded humans behave and how cultures change. These dynamics are largely internal/ideological; they provide a positive account for much human behavior, even actions that are maladaptive at the level of inclusive fitness. (By “account for” here I primarily mean give a causal explanation for, although I leave it open that some social norms can actually provide a justification for actions that are maladaptive in a fitness sense.) Ellis doesn’t seem to allow for these sorts of internal cultural dynamics because, on his view, “[c]ultural inheritances evolve by processes of natural selection” (p. 295).

Ellis, of course, does not think that adaptive-fitness-harming behavior is impossible. His second comment on Trachtenberg’s post suggests, however, that he is eager to point out that apparently maladaptive behavior might not really be such: “A classic example of a maladaptive behavior, from the biological point of view at the individual level, is birth control. Yet there are group and societal advantages, and even individual advantages, explaining why human individuals do engage in this socially-learned/cultural behavior.” When Ellis considers actions that actually harm inclusive fitness, however, he seems to see them as ‘misfires’ of cultural transmission processes, “such as when individuals copy the prestige-seeking behaviors of influential or successful members of their society, such as costly adornments, grave monuments, and other forms of conspicuous consumption” (Ellis p. 299). These sorts of cases seem to be doomed cultural mutations that will be quickly eliminated. I argue, on the other hand, that cultural dynamics can give rise to and sustain cultural traits even against (some degree of) pressure from natural selection.

To provide an example of cultural traits that operate according to their own internal dynamics I appeal to social norms as they are explained by Cristina Bicchieri in her 2006 book The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. Bicchieri holds that most human interactions are strategic – the payoff to each agent is a function of the behaviors of all agents – and that game theory provides a plausible way to think about such situations. Social norms work like scripts that allow people to coordinate their behaviors in strategic interactions (Bicchieri pp. 2-7). At this level of description, Bicchieri’s analysis seems to fit with Ellis’ structuration-theory account of culture: social norms facilitate and guide human coordination without determining those interactions. It is a key feature of Bicchieri’s view, however, that it “explains norms in terms of the expectations and preferences of those that follow them” (p. 2). The internal/ideological component of culture drives social dynamics on this view. The very same strategic interaction (understood extensionally) can be perceived by the agents involved as being any number of different games depending on which ‘evaluative lenses’ the players are using to ‘view’ it (Biccheri pp. x-xi). The meaning of the strategic situation to the participants determines, in part, each player’s behavior. Different expectations and preferences may be activated at different times. In theory, agents might see a strategic situation in any number of idiosyncratic ways. In practice, however, a person’s particular culture provides her with a number of ‘off-the-shelf’ packages of motives and beliefs for understanding interactions. Activation of a particular package or script is largely a matter of context (Bicchieri pp. 55-76).

For the purpose of discussing sociocultural niche construction, the key element of Bicchieri’s approach is that she recognizes the psychological complexity of human motivation. Human beings care about, and are so motivated by, a variety of ends. There are, for example, a number of ways someone can evaluate the outcomes of a strategic situation which would be characterized as a Prisoner’s Dilemma by self-interested agents (Bicchieri pp. 16-28). Bicchieri doesn’t do a lot of taxonomic work on this issue, but it isn’t hard to impose some structure. People can care about (elements of) their own well being, understood in terms of access to resources, desire satisfaction, pleasures, personal relationships, knowledge, etc. Likewise, a person might care about how others – all or some – fare in terms of these same perceived goods. Bichierri talks about “benevolence” and “altruism” in this context (p. 16-20). Amartya Sen invokes the notion of “sympathy” for this sort of other-concern in his paper “Rational Fools” (pp. 326-329). Sen also adds the idea of “commitments” – behavioral rules that limit the pursuit of otherwise attractive options. Commitments can be moral, religious, ideological, personal, etc. (Sen pp. 326-335). There are any number of ‘evaluative lenses’ that social norms can direct us toward, and so cultural processes can result in different behavioral outcomes in a strategic situation that stays the same with respect to fitness consideration. These behavioral differences are not random variations from the perspective of culture – they are the predictable outputs of processes that depend on the sense that people make of the situations they find themselves in.

Bicchieri doesn’t address the genesis of human motivational complexity, but it seems plausible to think that it is an evolutionary adaptation: a suite of psychological attitudes, almost all of which motivate us to seek something other than inclusive fitness, could well have maximized human fitness in our ancestral environment(s). The key point, for my purpose, is that actual human psychology screens off human decision making, and so much human behavior, from adaptive fitness considerations. To the extent that our actual motivations pull apart from fitness considerations, human choices will (and arguably should) ignore inclusive fitness. By way of outrageous illustration, imagine that deliberative democracy serves adaptive fitness less well than technocratic oligarchy. Even if we knew this to be a fact, it would be a mistake (I say) to simply conclude that human sociocultural niche construction will therefore lead to oligarchic cultural structures. Ideological counter-pressure at the level of internal cultural dynamics will make such a prediction uncertain.

Bicchieri, Cristina. (2006) The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. New York: Cambridge UP.

8 thoughts on “Cultural Dynamics: An Inside Job

  1. Stephen- great to have your interpretation- and brings up some real challenges for understanding the “human weather”- dynamics across years to decades, within the lifetime of individual humans- which is where I would place some aspects of the claim: “human cultures have their own internal dynamics that help to explain both how culturally embedded humans behave and how cultures change. These dynamics are largely internal/ideological; they provide a positive account for much human behavior, even actions that are maladaptive at the level of inclusive fitness.”

    More importantly, I do not, as you claim: ” think that adaptive-fitness-harming behavior is impossible”. Of course this is not only possible, but inevitable. It is just unlikely that such traits will become increasingly common in human societies over generational time. Evolutionary theory requires variations in traits- so maladaptive traits are an essential component of cultural evolution, and if they are not highly maladaptive, such traits can be maintained and may even increase in populations, groups, societies, even across long time periods, especially if there is some coupling of these traits with other traits that add adaptive fitness at some level. And I provide examples from the literature about runaway cultural niche construction based on partially maladaptive traits- such as extreme ostentation about wealth display through grave goods, etc. Some of this aspect of cultural evolution is discussed in papers cited (there are many cites about this- Brown et al 2011 is especially useful?)

    As you note, one of the most interesting aspects of cultural evolution is that cultural trait transmission includes a filtering step- where individuals may or may not adopt the trait and may even modify it. And as you note, there are indeed predictable asocial and social behaviors- though social behaviors are shaped to some degree by their social context- what role the individual is playing within their society (father? churchgoer? worker? party member? cheater?) and the society/social group the individual is playing within while the behavior is expressed. In most hunter-gatherer societies- wealth must be shared, in some larger-scale societies, wealth must be hoarded and boasted about- different social decisions shaped by culture at social scales.

    To understand natural selection in processes of cultural evolution over the long-term- changes in the “human climate” – the adaptive fitness of cultural traits at the scale of social groups and societies and across human generational time would tend to matter most, significantly more than would variants in individual behaviors within groups and societies over periods of years to decades.

    • Thanks, Erle – very productive reply. I agree with you that natural selection processes have influence on all sorts of human endeavors. And I also see that (for a period of time, at least) a set of fitness-adaptive traits can ‘carry’ a fitness-maladaptive trait. The key point I want to stress is that cultural traits like social norms are not random variations – they are psychological-content-driven responses to the strategic situations humans face. As such, the dynamics of social norms have their own internal logic and so are predictable to some degree. Learning about the set of traits over which selection pressure operates has got to be part of the account.

      I don’t think any of the foregoing makes the big projects any less worthy, of course. It might just mean that we need to get psychologists more involved.

      • Some clarifications, from an evolutionary point of view.
        1) cultural traits are not themselves social norms, social norms are just the most common cultural traits in a given group or society. Cultural traits vary substantially within groups and societies, including traits differing greatly from the social norms, even though the most common traits would be the norms. This is analogous to variance in genetic traits within a population of individuals.
        2) there are random processes at work, and also selective/filtering processes at work.

        A question: are you implying with this statement: “social norms are ….psychological-content-driven responses to the strategic situations humans face.” that social norms are generated by biologically-determined psychological reactions by individuals (asocial responses), rather than selections among cultural trait options? I don’t really understand what you mean here.

    • Sorry to weigh in late one this–and the conversation has moved on (in some ways) beyond this point . . . but it seems to me the issue between Erle (on the one side) and Steve and me (on the other) might just be captured by the climate/weather distinction.

      In the comments on my last post I asked whether the difference in causal efficacy of the internal aspect of culture (the content of the thoughts people think, not just the behavior associated with those thoughts) might have to do with time scale. Thus, the time scale of changes attributable to the internal dimension seems pretty short–maybe too short for selection pressure from the environment to “detect” them. By contrast, for selection pressure to operate, so that we can speak of cultural evolution as responsive to the environment, maybe the time scale of change has to be slow–so that the environment “notices” it so to speak (i.e., so that the changes in culture have the chance to confer adaptive advantage).

      If that is correct, then it seems like a climate/weather thing–i.e. evolution is operating at the level of climate, and thus can “ignore” short term variations which are, by analogy, weather. If I’m not belaboring the analogy too much, this suggests that the internal aspect that Steve and I are worried about (what it “feels like” to be a member of a given culture, and how those feelings can be a driver of cultural change) is a matter of weather, and thus theorized somewhat differently than longer-term cultural changes that are explained in terms of adaptive fitness. (I emphasize somewhat because I’m sure that the two modes of explanation–of “weather” and “climate” intersect.)

      • I am fascinated by the weather/climate analogy. Climate is the process that drives weather; the means by which climate influences anything is weather – it the actual storms, droughts, etc. that get you, not the increased probability that they will occur.

        If there is some sort of contemporaneous process that influences weather, no matter how short-lived (e.g., El Niño, La Niña) then your climate models need to find a place for it. Likewise, I say, for the human weather and human climate: human ‘weather’ is partly determined by internal things like social norms/rules; social norms/rules have their own discursive dynamics; social norms/rules are subject to selection pressure as well, but you need to know the discursive dynamics to do the forecast correctly. There needs to be room for discursive dynamics in human climate models too: if your climate model misses non-random sources of weather, you aren’t done yet.

  2. Thanks for the clarifications and question. One of the great things about interdisciplinary work is that you get to see how people in other disciplines approach problems, not just their finished projects.

    I am guilty of using the term “norm” in a specialized way without being clear about that. I’m thinking about norms as a species of rules: conventions are norms (e.g., drive on the right/left side of the road); coordination strategies are norms (e.g., if a call drops, the original caller dials back); the application of moral principles involves norms (e.g., we should/shouldn’t submit to authority when we encounter law enforcement officers). In this sense, norms-as-rules aren’t necessarily normal in a statistical sense: there can be distinct, incompatible norms for different segments of the same social group (e..g., the police stuff); there can even be norms that apply to various situations that no one follows (e.g., there is interesting work on littering norms).

    Having clarified the previous point, I hope you can see why I don’t think the story can be told by appealing to some version of random variation and selective filtering. The standard social-science view about something like rule adoption appeals to how people see things, both in terms of belief/perception and in terms of desire/attraction/motivation. The inner, what-it-is-like part of cultural dynamics is more discursive and argument-like (in some broad sense) than a natural selection process allows.

    The discursive part of cultural processes is what I was referring to in the sentence you asked about. Again, there may be some terminological issues here. Philosophers use terms like “psychological content” to get at what mental states like beliefs, desires, expectations, preferences, etc. are about. E.g., If I hope Kansas wins the NCAA Tournament then Kansas wins the NCAA Tournament is the content of my mental state. My point was supposed to be that social norms-as-rules fall out of the way people perceive their circumstances (including social circumstances) and the rules themselves are related to the contents (in the foregoing sense) of those perceptions in roughly the way conclusions of arguments are related to their premises. There are some natural, asocial elements to this story (e.g., human capacities) and some social elements (e.g., how people see things is socially conditioned, given our psychological capacities).

    BTW – I might try to post something soon on your “human weather” vs “human climate” analogy – fascinating stuff!

  3. Alas- I’m still confused- we are clearly hitting some disciplinary boundaries (!?).

    I get it about norms as specific forms of cultural traits. There are many others, such as the “recipes” to make a tool, or the behaviors needed to sustain an institution.

    On my part, evolutionary theory does not imply that the set of cultural traits available to individuals within a society is a random set of cultural traits- these would already represent a set selected across generations. Further, cultural trait transmission includes an adoption process: an individual may or may not adopt a cultural trait. The only “random” part is the generation of new possible traits through asocial learning or just at random. Like deciding to walk a silly walk- which might be then be passed on by social learning or not….

    Looking forward to clarifying further in person!

    • Now that my head is above water for a few minutes, anyway, let me see if I can at least sharpen the boundaries of the area we need to explore together. I see that, on your account, “the set of cultural traits available to individuals within a society” is NOT “a random set of cultural traits.” I want to go a little farther and deny that it is merely “a set selected across generations,” at least if you are using “selected” to denote an evolutionary process. Certain specific in-group-vs-out-group rules, for example, might arise from mistaken stereotyping (not really a random process, I would say). Such social rules/norms can persist – at least for longish periods of time – despite being maladaptive from the perspective of inclusive fitness. I.e., such norms might persist in the set of cultural traits available to be handed down despite the fact that they constrain fitness enhancing problem solving. To put it yet another way, an alternative set of rules which fitness-dominates the old rules and is available in the sense of being fully cognizable by human agents within that culture is still not guaranteed to supplant the old rules.

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