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.