«Chapter 14: STYLE AND ETHNICITY: THE EVOLUTION OF SYMBOLIC TRAITS “. what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life ...»
A cogent minority hypothesis is championed by cynical (or realist) economists. They argue your diploma is little more than a signal that you have the mental stamina and tolerance of boredom to do the typical white collar job well. You haven't changed since high school really (the specific skills we teach you are irrelevant), but you will have, if you graduate, hard- to-fake proof of those valuable stamina and boredom tolerance qualities you have already had as a high school graduate. Your high school classmates that didn’t go on to college may also have these talents, but they can’t prove it to an employer, as you will be able to when you graduate. On this hypothesis, the escalation of educational requirements for jobs in the 20th Century doesn't mainly have to do with greater skills but is rather due to ever more costly competitive displays of handicaps. As wealth has gone up, every family can afford to keep kids in high school, and a high school diploma becomes an easily faked signal. Extra time and other resources now have to be wasted to acquire the harderto-fake college diploma if you aspire to a middling or higher place in the job market. You would be better off, and prospective employers would be indifferent, if there was a cheaper, unfakable signal, than college, but there isn't. An expensive signal is required, and we have an ideology about education that legitimizes a college education as the handicap of choice.
Employers in another society might find evidence that you routinely turned up for several hours of silent meditation every day for several years just as useful!
IV. Application of Evolutionary Theory to Social Science Debates The issue of whether symbolic traits are functional in some way or another, or whether they represent a major challenge to functional interpretations has been one of the major debates in the social sciences. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) decried the endless, sterile “cyclical and repetitive” debate caused by feuds between functionalist and anti-functionalists. One of our major claims for ecological and evolutionary theory is that it gives us a better tool than social scientists have had in the past to understand the issues involved in such debates, and to get science moving forward again.
In this section we compare four classic social science hypotheses about stylistic/symbolic variation. The first looks for hidden, but quite ordinary, adaptive messages behind apparently maladaptive signals. The second invokes highly functional explanations for this variation, analogous to Hamilton/Zuk in the biological case. The third, a favorite of many cultural anthropologists, depends upon hypotheses like run away, or at least the high-cost version of the handicap hypothesis. The fourth has little parallel in biology; imagining that the group-level variation generated by symbolic evolution produces group selection for coEvolution of Symbolic Traits operation, much like conformity.
A. Cryptic Functionalism Marvin Harris (1974), from an ultra-functionalist school of anthropologists, looks for ordinary functional explanations of symbolic traits. For example, he explains religious dietary prohibitions against pork in the Middle East as resulting from pigs competing too much with humans for food in a rather dry environment. He explains the Hindu prohibition against cow slaughter as stemming from a need to protect cows from over slaughter in a system where their traction, milk and dung are valuable commodities.
Harris is a bit loose as to how all these hidden functional traits (adaptations) come about. He is also rather unsystematic and suspiciously imaginative in the way he discovers these hidden functions. For example, he invokes group and individual level adaptations seemingly as suits his fancy.
It is quite plausible that many indicator traits are highly correlated with genetic fitness or other conventional standards of functionality. We can help him out. Recall the fitness maximizing case of the indirect bias process. Often indicator characters may themselves be adaptive, as well as being signs correlated with an adaptive complex of indirectly biased traits. The most adaptive sign to use as an indicator trait is one that is causally related to fitness, so we should not be surprised that indicator characters are often directly adaptive.
Harris' hypothesis is well to keep in mind because ethnocentrism may lead us to mistake anything exotic that others do as an arbitrary maladaptive symbol. It is plausible that real adaptations often serve as indicator characters and get woven into belief systems. Style may often substance or be awfully closely correlated with substance.
B. Communication Function Hypothesis Symbolic traits have basic communication functions. A. Cohen (1974), and many others, argue that symbols are functional in the sense that they are useful in communication.
Communication may be at the level of individuals exchanging various kinds of information, as in the basic use of language, or it may be more group oriented communication, as in using clothing style to signal what ethnic group or class you belong to. On this hypothesis, stylistic variation does not do anything at all mysterious. It just symbolizes some underlying meaning people want to communicate, just as a word does. Symbolic behaviors may be rather elaborate and costly, but not really any more than is required to serve their rather complex communication function. The symbol experts (priests, spin doctors, and the like) do acquire a certain amount of power that they abuse, but that is no different in kind
Communication functions do not conflict with free variation. According to this hypothesis, the symbolic system is free to vary and change, because, as we argued when introducing the evolutionary theory of symbols, the communication function is served equally well by any sign we care to attach to a particular meaning. As long as language or other symbol systems change slowly enough that we mainly understand what others are trying to say, they are free to change any which way without disturbing function. The evolution of ordinary adaptations (what we talk about) is in the medium run almost completely divorced from the evolution of language and other symbolic communication systems (how we talk about what we talk about).
Insofar as symbol systems like language respond to assertive uses of style by individuals, a great deal of stylistic variation will be created by the almost unrestrained freedom of the run away as we saw in the examples like New York r. Groups will almost automatically tend to accumulate stylistic differences because of the very weak functional constraints on what symbol we use to communicate what meaning. This variation may be simply functionally irrelevant, neither of much use nor much harm. We could all speak the same language, but it doesn't really cost much if people in distant communities speak differently. This hypothesis has a close resemblance to Hamilton and Zuk’s explanation of “exaggerated” traits in birds. There may be adaptive functions for group marking styles.
This “tower of babel” effect of the indirect bias force acting on symbolic indicators may have indirect functional implications by creating stylistic markers of groups. There may even be an advantage to speaking differently from your neighbors. It is widely believed by functionalist anthropologists (Cohen is a good example again in this context) that stylistic markers of group membership are an essential part group level functioning of political systems. Complex societies involves lost of coordination between specialists, and it may be quite important for you to signal your group membership to others so that they can appropriately adjust their own behavior. When this is true, markers of group membership can arise by cultural evolution without the need to necessarily to invoke group advantage.
Boyd and Richerson (1987) studied how ethnic markers, or similar markers of ecologically distinctive groups, might arise using a theoretical model. This is a very simple example of how functional signals of group membership can arise due to individual level advantages.
Here is how it works:
14-260 Evolution of Symbolic Traits Suppose there is an ecologically heterogeneous area in which [say] raising more cows and fewer crops is an advantage in one region, and more farmingfewer cows is an advantage in another. There is a certain amount of cultural contact across the boundary, so that people living in one area are exposed through trade, intermarriage, and the like to people living in the other. Such contacts will tend to result in a flow ideas from one region to another. Selection or adaptive biases will tend cause populations to adapt to the local environment, but, if information is costly and selection and/or biases imperfect, the flow of ideas across the boundary will prevent populations from perfecting local adaptations. Unless something intervenes, the degree to which human populations can develop highly specific adaptations to local conditions will be reduced by the flow of maladaptive ideas from neighboring communities.
This is a quite general problem of evolution in heterogeneous environments.
In the case of genetic evolution, we often find species replacing one another at ecological boundaries, and the reproductive isolation between related species is thought to be important in allowing expansion into a new habitat. A small population at the species' margin facing a new environment can't adapt to it because gene flow from the large populations adapted to the species' old environment dilutes the gene pool of the small population trying to adapt to the peripheral environment. If a new species arises, reproductively isolated from the old species, it can proceed to adapt to the new environment free from the disrupting effects of migrants bringing genes from the old environment.
Humans can play a cultural variant of the speciation trick which is actually more efficient. Suppose each of our two model populations is characterized by a variable quantitative marker trait (M1 and M2) the two model environments respectively, an adaptive character (A1 and A2), and a correlation or covariance (C1, C2) between the adaptive and marker character. For example, we might imagine again a drier environment in which the best adapted subsistence technique might be to raise more cattle and fewer crops next to a wetter one where more crops and fewer cattle is favored. The marker character could be anything conspicuous and stylistic, such as style of hat or amount of pronunciation of r. Correlation or covariance will arise if there is a patterned association of style and adaptive behavior, for example if cattle raisers tend to wear bigger, floppier hats than farmers.
Now, suppose that people acquire their hat style or dialect when they are young from their parents, and later adopt their subsistence strategy as young adults. As young adults, they are exposed to oblique influences, including people raised in the other environment, and who possibly carrying locally mistaken ideas about the appropriate mix of cows and crops. As young adults they use two decision making strategies to select their subsistence strategy. They prefer people similar to themselves on the marker character, a kind of indirect bias. They also put some weight on the economic success of the people they propose to imitate (this could be an adaptive direct bias, an indirect bias effect on an accurate index of fitness, or even just natural selection for economic success).
The theoretical question is whether a correlation between the linguistic symbolic trait and the adaptive trait can arise. If so, then using the ethnocentric preference for imitating people with a like dialect will help protect individuals Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-261 from the change of imitating the wrong sort of subsistence trait to culture flow from a second population. A typical result of the model is plotted in figure 14θ1 and θ2 symbolize the optimum value of the subsistence strategy, and the X axis is time in generations. Note that the populations start out identical for the marker trait. Until a fair amount of difference in the marker traits arises and until the correlation between adaptive and marker traits becomes substantial, the adaptations to each environment are distinctly suboptimal. (The marker trait divergence doesn't get any help from a run away effect in this particular model.) However, eventually, the symbolic difference becomes quite marked, and a good signal of having the right adaptive strategy, and both populations can perfect their adaptations. Once both populations reach the optimum adaptive mix of cows and crops, the evolution of marker characters and the covariation stops..
Figure14-2. “Representative trajectory of the mean value of the adaptive character, the marker character, and the covariance between the two characters in the two habitats (Boyd & Richerson 1987:74).” This model suggests that the “pseudo-speciation” effect of partial cultural isolation of human groups by stylistic differences and ethnocentric imitation preferences can indeed be useful. This mechanism is potentially much more flexible than a true speciation barrier, because the choice based on success can over-ride the mechanism if an innovation that is an advantage in both environments occurs. Note that it is driven by the advantage each individual gets from imitating someone like themselves in a situation where like individuals 14-262 Evolution of Symbolic Traits also have a tendency to have the right subsistence behavior.
UC Davis archaeologist Robert Bettinger (1991) argues that the ethnic boundaries function of style is the best current explanation of the Upper Paleolithic Transition. Recall the discussion on page 14-3 about the correlation between stylistic variation, local adaptation, and increased population density at the Upper Paleolithic Transition. The dramatic expansion of the human species' geographical range, variety of subsistence forms, and numbers that occurred at the UPT is quite plausibly due to the development of modern hominids' enthusiasm for style!