«Chapter 14: STYLE AND ETHNICITY: THE EVOLUTION OF SYMBOLIC TRAITS “. what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life ...»
Chapter 14: STYLE AND ETHNICITY: THE EVOLUTION
OF SYMBOLIC TRAITS
“... what are the advantages which we propose by that
great purpose of human life that we call bettering our condi-
tion? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of
with complacency and approbation, are all the advantages
we can propose to derive from it.”
Adam Smith, 1790
[The hobby of ocean] “sailing is like standing day af-
ter day in a cold shower tearing up five-dollar bills.” Anonymous blue water sailor In a Luann comic strip Luann is doing her nails. Brad asks “What’s that, another new nail polish?” Luann answers “Yup, after it dries, it still looks wet.” Brad asks “Why do you want it to look wet when it’s dry?” Luann replies testily “I don’t know Brad. I’m just a slave to fashions, I don’t cre- ate them!” I. Introduction: Style a Puzzling Problem Why should we devote any time, attention, or other resources to the seemingly frivo- lous traits exemplified by fashion? As Adam Smith and Luann tell us, human life is deeply influenced by our quest for attention from others and our use of “style” to attract that atten- tion. We adorn our bodies with gaudy clothes, cosmetics, jewelry, tattoos, and scars. We make and collect art, and decorate even mundane utilitarian objects with logos and bright paint. We speak thousands of languages when any one of them would seem to do perfectly well. Even when designers like Bauhaus architects forswear style for pure function, no- style itself becomes a stylistic statement. Brad may disparage Luann's nail polish, but wear- ing old Levis can't escape being a kind of fashion either. Style and our preoccupation with it are an important puzzle from an evolutionary perspective. Sure, boys seem to be attracted by prettily made up girls, but shouldn't evolution have favored males who are attracted by no-nonsense earthmotherly types? What are we to make of the aesthetic analogy between human style and the colorfully variable traits of some animals (e.g. pheasant feathers and tropical fish tails)?
In this chapter we will introduce and apply the evolutionary theory that applies to symbolic cultural variation. The theory is borrowed from the biologists' theory of sexual selection, so the argument here is that the resemblance between the colorful dress of real cardinals and the red feathers of the bird of the same name is more than superficial. Using Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-243 the theory, we'll try to answer some of the controversial questions that social scientists have posed about human preoccupation with style and symbolic behavior.
II. Basic Background A. Style Ubiquitously Important in Modern Humans It is easy to give anthropological examples of stylistic “excesses.” On the Pacific Island of Ponapae, a man's prestige is partially determined by his contribution of very large yams to feasts held by district chiefs. Contributions of ordinary foods like breadfruit, coconut, or standard yams count for little. Rather families compete to grow very large “prize” yams using special varieties and laborious cultivation techniques. These can be really huge, up to 9 feet in length, 3 feet in diameter, and requiring a dozen men to carry. Families expend great effort in producing such yams, according to their ethnographer Bascom (1948).
Yet the yield of food per unit effort is much lower than for ordinary yams. Despite the apparently wasteful effort involved, the competition is taken very seriously by Ponapaens.
Success in growing prize yams is taken as an index of a man's ability, industry and generosity, and bringing one to a feast is taken as a token of his love and respect for the chief.
Chiefs raise the rank of men who contribute large yams consistently.
American life is as full of arbitrary stylistic behavior taken seriously as Ponapaens or any other. Our own behavior seems to us so natural and sensible that we forget its giant yam-like attributes, although those of Ponapaens and other exotic people do seem bizarre and useless. This is simple ethnocentrism. Think of the generational styles in matters such as music, clothing, and recreational drugs. It is interesting that major conflicts between parents and teenagers can erupt over such seemingly trivial matters of style. Most of you have probably experimented with pleasing your parents by imitating their style or displeasing them by flaunting one they don't subscribe to. Think of the way that advertisers try to manipulate our commitments to style to sell their products. Vendors of functionally equivalent or near equivalent products like cars and beer are especially clever in this regard. The author Tom Wolfe is perhaps America's most acute and entertaining commentator on style.
He is good on our giant yams.
B. Style's Recent Origin Human preoccupation with style is an evolutionarily recent phenomenon. It is associated with the so-called Upper Paleolithic Transition (UPT), which occurred in Europe about 35,000 years Before Present (BP) (Stringer and Gamble, 1993; Klein, 1989: Ch. 7;
Marshak, 1976). The European UPT is well excavated and understood descriptively, and is marked by the simultaneous appearance of (a) Anatomically Modern Humans (replacing 14-244 Evolution of Symbolic Traits Neanderthals), (b) artistic artifacts like statuettes and beads, (c) stylistic (apparently nonfunctional) variation in otherwise utilitarian artifacts like projectile points, (d) local variation in styles on a quite small scale, and (e) debatably, fully functional speech (Lieberman, 1984). (The more fragmentary evidence so far recovered elsewhere suggests more complex patterns.) Thus, for most of human history, we got along without style. It is notable that the Upper Paleolithic Transition is associated in Europe with a big jump in population densities.
C. Controversy Over Possible Functions
Evolutionary biologists define function in terms of what natural selection favors. Adaptations function to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals in conventional evolutionary arguments.
Social scientists have traditionally defined function similarly with regard to cultural traits, although they have usually been group functionalists. Nonfunctional behavior will be produced by processes such as random error or drift if they are strong enough overwhelm natural selection and similar function-generating processes.
Debates over the function of style or the lack thereof have a long history. The post UPT population increase suggests that style may have functions despite its seeming costly frivolity. Biologists and social scientists have conducted rather parallel discussions. Darwin started the ball rolling. He proposed that many colorful stylistic traits, both organic and cultural, are the result of mate choice sexual selection, usually female choice of males. He suggested a non-functional or even anti-functional mechanism by which female choice and similar processes could arbitrarily amplify peacock tails and human decoration to wasteful extremes in defiance of ordinary natural selection.
Be careful of definitions here. We can define “function” any way we want; some evolutionary biologists include sexual selection in their definition, some don’t. Thus, we can speak of peacock tails functioning to attract females, although we speak of them as dysfunctional from the point of view of survival. The important point, beyond mere matters of definitional taste, is that sexual and (ordinary) natural selection can conflict. Sexual selection became Darwin’s theoretical alternative to natural selection to explain traits that were Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-245 apparently dramatically afunctional from the point of view of ordinary natural selection.
Culturally, people are able to chose whom to imitate, a process that is quite analogous to choosing whom to mate with, and if Darwin's anti-functional mechanism will work for culture, something like it might work for culture. We argue in this chapter that the antifunctionalist ideas of certain social scientists make sense in terms of a sexual-selection like mechanism, indirect bias.
Others have objected vehemently to such notions, and have proposed various ordinary functional hypotheses to account for style. For example, style can identify which species or cultural group you belong to for purposes of mating or other kinds of social interaction, something which may be highly functional. We will discuss a variety of these hypotheses below.
There are also some very interesting hypotheses that blend the functional and afunctional hypotheses. The best known of these goes under the term the “handicap principle.” Perhaps carrying a conspicuous, costly, burden around is a signal to potential mates or imitators that your genes or culture are unusually good. Those gaudy tail feathers, costly clothes, or expensive, rarely four-wheeling, four-wheel-drive vehicles are saying loudly that you can not only survive and prosper, but survive and prosper in spite of wastefully spending resources on feathers, clothes, or cars.
There are two types of style (Wiessner, 1989): (1) People use stylistic variation assertively to express their individuality, as in the case of personal adornment or competitive displays of prestige items and (2) People use style emblematically to signal membership in a group, such as an ethnic group. Of course, the same system of style, such as car ownership, can have variation at the individual and group level. At one level businessmen and college professors use cars emblematically to signal what subculture they belong to (big American sedans versus “sensible” but classy foreign cars). At another level, the details of manufacturer, model, color, and so forth reflect individual taste. Quite different functions (or non-functions) might apply at the two levels.
The evolutionary questions turn on the issue of honest versus dishonest signals, and on the total effort devoted to competitive advertizing versus “real” quality. The theory imagines that animals (and people) advertize. The ultimate sales pitch is for your genes or your culture. Are the population level consequences of advertizing the accumulation of dishonest signals “designed” to mislead imitators and mates? Does advertizing lead to a wasteful arms race, even when signals are basically honest? Or do strictly utilitarian uses of advertizing dominate?
14-246 Evolution of Symbolic Traits D. Definition of Style as Symbolic Characters Technically, stylistic traits are usually described as symbolic. A symbol is a type of a sign. A sign is something that stands for something else. According to semioticians, the theorists on the issue, signs come in three flavors: (1) Icons: signs that resemble the thing they stand for, for example a map or an anatomical drawing in your biology textbook. (2) Indices: signs that are factually related to what they indicate. For example the size of a person's house or the fullness of farmer's storage bin are indices of wealth and farming talent, because without them it is tough to display the index. (3) Symbols: signs that indicate what they indicate by conventional agreement. The purest example of symbols are found in language; it doesn't matter what words or grammatical structures are used to represent particular meanings, only that we all agree on which to use for what. Any sign may have some scope for stylistic alternatives that are functionally equivalent, but the scope for stylistic variation is greatest for symbols. An exceedingly rich symbolic repertoire is a human specialty. Primates like monkeys are known to have a few symbolic calls, on the order of one dozen. Humans have active vocabularies of a few thousand words.
III. Evolutionary Forces Acting on Stylistic/Symbolic Traits A. Ordinary Adaptive Forces Purely stylistic variation cannot be subject to ordinary natural selection in the usual way. Symbols by definition are equivalent until we decide to invest them with particular meanings. Take linguistic variation. English is not an adaptation to the British Isles, nor is Chinese an adaptation the Yellow River Plain. If history had made the inhabitants of England Chinese speakers (more plausibly, they might have remained Celtic speakers, or become French speakers), life would go on just fine.
Adaptive forces like natural selection and direct bias can act on symbol systems in three specific ways. First, in the case of communication systems like language, the ability to communicate can be selected for its functions, even if the symbolic variation is adaptively neutral. It may be adaptive to communicate food sources, danger, and social information to your fellow humans, whatever language you use. Second, selective forces may act to counteract the excesses of the run away process, or to minimize the costs of signaling. Remember Darwin's idea here: The peculiar dynamics of sexual selection may conflict with the effects of natural selection, and in any given case one or the other may be the stronger.
Natural selection will fight our tendency to wasteful competitive signalling. Third, frequency dependent selection can also act on symbolic variation itself, much like the operation of frequency dependent bias discussed in the next section.
Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-247 B. Social Choice-Based Forces Frequency dependent bias and similar effects, such as social ostracizing of people who display “odd” tastes, may be important in the evolution of style for the same reasons that frequency dependent natural selection affects symbol systems. At least when functioning as a straightforward communication system, conformity is important in that we must all use the same symbols for the same meaning. If communication by symbols is to be successful, we must “agree” to use the same symbols for the same meanings. Bias (or selection) will favor the common type and discriminate against rare variants. For example, a rare individual who cries “hell” instead of “help” when in trouble will be less likely to receive aid and is perhaps significantly more likely to die. Knowing this we tend to use the same sounds everyone else does for the same meanings. Note that none of these three processes tend to cause functional convergence and fit to the environment of stylistic variants. We say “cat,” Spanish speakers say “gato,” and both are equally effective for communication. In the case of assertive style, non-conformist forces may be important; for creative artists, it is important to be new, fresh, and unique.