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«Chapter 14: STYLE AND ETHNICITY: THE EVOLUTION OF SYMBOLIC TRAITS “. what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life ...»

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It is interesting that complex, state level societies are built up out of socially differentiated and stylistically marked subgroups. The social raw material of complex societies includes ethnic units, but also castes, classes, interest groups, political parties, occupational and professional associations, government, business and voluntary organizations, religions, etc. These all tend to have stylistic markers. Perhaps the resemblance between complex social communities composed of cultural pseudospecies and complex biotic communities composed of many species is not entirely superficial (we return to this question in Chapters 27 and 28).

We suppose that most thoughtful observers agree that the adaptive advantages of communication in one form or another are part of the answer to the style puzzle. Especially if it is useful to symbolically communicate about social structure like ethnic group membership, it is easy to understand how a fairly elaborate ability to freely develop new styles to fit new social needs is adaptive, even though the symbolic variation itself is not directly adaptive to local conditions in the sense we're used to from thinking about ordinary selection.

C. Antifunctionalist Hypothesis Marshall Sahlins (1976) and like-minded social scientists claim that the use of symbols in language, ritual, etc. is important and cannot be explained by any form of adaptive theory, cultural or genetic. His argument is that symbols are arbitrary and cannot be very strongly influenced by selection, direct bias, etc. Humans are free to invent whatever symbolic culture they want. Cultural models of the world are symbolic and imposed on nature, not derived from it. In other words, humans first use symbolic processes to define the world, then live in the world they have invented. This is a major challenge to any form of functionalist theory; adaptation to environment is rather meaningless if we've largely invented the “environment” in the first place! It is a view with a very wide following among “post-modernist” social scientists.

Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-263 Sahlins calls the process he imagines drives antifunctional behavior “cultural reason.” He is quite foggy about what cultural reason is exactly, but many of his examples are fairly compelling. Why are Americans fond of beef, but not of horsemeat and dogmeat?

Many people whose cuisine we otherwise admire, that of the French and the Chinese for example, find one or the other quite toothsome! If it is adaptive for the French to eat horse, shouldn't it be the same for us?

The run away process can create maladaptive variation in defiance of adaptation in the ordinary sense. We have a candidate mechanism for Sahlins. Elaborate symbolic systems, including complex ideologies and world views could be built up by the run away process. There is a kind of aesthetic rather than functional principle involved. The run away process is very sensitive to initial conditions. Different societies are very likely to run in different directions, hence American beefsteak, French sauteed horse, and Filipino grilled puppy. Looked at this way, there is a perfectly respectable evolutionary mechanism for anti-functionalists in the social sciences to appeal to.

This hypothesis has been neglected in the social sciences both by ardent adaptationists, and by critics of Darwinian theory. Both camps find it convenient to oversimplify Darwinism to score debating points. The idea that a process like indirect bias can generate functional behavior most of the time, but also sometimes lead to the run away extremes, does not correspond to the typological, dichotomized thinking prevalent among social scientists.

The costly handicap idea makes it even more difficult to make a rigid distinction between functional and afunctional explanations. You should be able to construct this argument for yourself based on the discussion of Zahavi’s ideas in the last section.

D. Group-Level Functions for Symbolic Systems R. Rappaport (1979), and many other social scientists have long espoused the hypothesis that religion and prestige systems are group-functional (the results of group selection in our terms). Religions and political ideologies often include strong norms favoring altruism (e.g. the “golden rule”). Rappaport is especially interested in explaining the subset of symbolic characters that are taken by people to be sacred and holy. These religious aspects of symbolism often invoke the deepest possible commitments from believers. He argues that hiding group functions behind the mysterious veil of the sacred and holy serves to protect them from the selfish calculation of individuals. We would make selfish choices in games like we studied in the last chapter, but religious beliefs “trick” us with promises of rewards in heaven for good behavior and threats of the everlasting fires of hell if we are bad. The tricks are often benign, since commitment to sacred principles allows us to coopEvolution of Symbolic Traits erate to keep the peace, avoid destructive overexploitation of the environment, and the like.

Thus, Rappaport's symbolic group functionalism stresses social organizational functions, moral norms and the like, while Harris' cryptic functional arguments usually stress direct technological and subsistence functions. As with Sahlins and Harris, the examples are more convincing than the explanation of them.

Why might norms for group altruism, like the golden rule, be routinely bound up in highly symbolic religious ideologies and ritual practices? Why not just be nice to everybody without the mumbo-jumbo? One possibility is this: Recall that the run away and handicap exaggeration processes are highly sensitive to initial conditions. In general each society will run away in a different direction. This is a powerful means of generating random variation at the level of groups. The variation can be quite costly in terms of individual fitness. Selection might act on this variation, but the adaptive wisdom of group altruism might remain cloaked in myths and rituals that were part of the runaway process. This has the added advantage from the point of view of group selection that individuals are mystified; it may be more difficult for selfish genetic rules that underlie guided variation and direct bias to undo such symbolically embedded group functions because the groupfunctional rules are themselves so confounded and entangled with non-rational symbolic elements. Groups with the most complex, goofy mumbo jumbo may actually have an adaptive advantage!

The following scenario illustrates how this process functions embedded in irrational symbol systems might arise. Among a collection of pioneering Pastoral societies out on the steppe, some men's prestige systems might have developed around themes of conspicuous displays of wealth, others around elaborate religious ritual, and still others around many other things. Only a few might initially have been elaborated in the direction of a deeply felt commitment to aggressive masculine bravado. From the point of view of the run away or handicap display hypothesis, all of these may be essentially equivalent. Depending upon accidents of history, some male prestige systems got started in one direction, others in other directions. However, they would have had very different effects on group success. Given steppe pastoral life-styles where long-distance attacks are feasible, and plundering others' animals is a viable economic strategy, societies with the aggressive bravado system may be richly rewarded at the expense of wealth accumulators and the mystically virtuous.

In other circumstances, the reckless bravado system can be suicidal, say where a strong state maintains effective law and order. In environments where strong states are possible, prestige based on wealth accumulation is likely to build richer societies that can afford the armies and organization to suppress tribes with an excess of bravado but limited Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-265 sophistication. The arbitrariness of evolution due to signalling may in such cases act like group level mutation that produces variation for group selection to work upon. Like the conformity effect we met in the last chapter, whole groups will be committed to one or another variant to symbolize prestige, and a few “deviant” migrants will be discriminated against.

This mechanism would seem to underpin Rappaport's hypothesis. It seems plausible enough. It is indeed striking that social arrangements and customs are usually “sanctified”embedded in a ritual system like a religion. This hypothesis will account for that. It might also account for the replacement of non-esthetic, but apparently otherwise quite brainy Neanderthals by modern humans. Our groups might have simply been larger and more cooperative, and able to use collective action (e.g. warfare) to out compete them. It also accounts for the crudity and imperfections of group level adaptations. Only those variants that the run away or handicap process happens to exaggerate are available for group selection, and there is no obvious way for group selection to fine tune where these out-of-control processes go. A few pearls of organizational wisdom, the odd norms of altruism sanctified by religion, and so forth, are bound up in a lot of mumbo-jumbo of dubious utility.

VI. Conclusion

A certain amount of evidence seems to support the existence of cultural evolutionary processes that lead to traits that are not adaptive in the genetic sense. The run away process can generate behavior that is not adaptive in any usual sense of the word. The handicap principle can result in competitive displays of cultural or genetic quality that waste resources. Spectacular examples, like the Jonestown tragedy in 1978 and the similar Waco tragedy in 1993, remind us that human groups are prone to collective insanity. Whatever theory we ultimately adopt has got to account for such things.

The costly information hypothesis suggests that culture even so is an adaptive system, because the costs in genetic fitness of giving up indirect bias would be even more costly than tolerating giant yams and giant cars (on average at least). The capacity to use indirect bias, style and symbols is probably adaptive, even if many of the specific results are of dubious value. We have seen that there are several functional hypotheses involving stylistic traits and indirect bias to compete with the run away idea to explain particular apparently exaggerated traits. The handicap proposal is hard to classify, with its mixture of function and costly exaggeration.

We really do not understand very well why people do all of the wonderful and bizarre things that they do. The real point is not to make too many claims for any one hypothesis.

14-266 Evolution of Symbolic Traits People are harder to understand than ordinary organisms because they are more complicated from an evolutionary point of view due to having a second system of inheritance, culture, to keep track of. The most efficient scientific progress will come, we think, if we can line up all the logically consistent hypotheses in a row, so we can start shooting at them.

That is why I took us out of our way to consider some pretty extreme examples of apparently maladaptive behaviors. Even if they are turn out to be wrong, we ought to give them their best shot to explain the data. This is part of the Darwinian strategy; Darwin wrote almost as long a book about his mechanism of maladaptation, sexual selection, as he wrote about natural selection!

Note that, like natural selection, one evolutionary process, indirect bias, can lead to a multitude of outcomes depending upon the details of the particular case. To the extent that our evolutionary models are apt, they are a powerful tool for investigating the behavioral diversity that we see. The models point to critical things that need to be measured if we are to decide between particular hypotheses in particular situations. For example, is the psychology of indirect bias really ever such as to allow preferences to evolve faster than indicators, and hence set up the run away case?

VI. Bibliographic Notes


Bandura, A., D. Ross and S.A. Ross. 1963. A comparative study of the status envy, social power, and the secondary reinforcement theories of identificatory learning. J. Abn.

Soc. Psyc. 67: 527-34.

Bascom, W.R. 1948. Ponapae Prestige Economy. Southwestern J. of Anthropology 4: 211Bettinger, R. 1991. Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeology and Evolutionary Theory. New York:


Boyd, R. and P.J. Richerson. 1987. The evolution of ethnic markers. Cultural Anthropology 2: 65-79.

Cohen, A. 1974. Two-dimensional Man.: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society. Berkeley: Univ. Of Calif. Press.

Cronin, H. 1992. The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flinn, M.V. and R.D. Alexander. 1982. Culture theory: the developing synthesis from biology. Human Ecology 10: 383-400.

Hamilton, W.D. and M. Zuk. 1982. Heritable true fitness and bright birds: a role for parasites? Science 218: 384-387.

Harris, M. 1974. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House.

Klein, R.G. 1989. The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. Chicago:

Evolution of Symbolic Traits 14-267 Univ. Chicago Press.

Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, W. 1980. Locating Language in Time and Space. New York: Academic Press.

Lieberman, P. 1984. The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Marshak, A. 1976. Implications of the Paleolithic symbolic evidence for the origin of language. Am. Sci. 64: 136-145.

Pomiankowski, A.N. 1990. The evolution of female mate preferences for male genetic quality. Oxford Surveys in Evolutionary Biology 5: 136-184.

Rappaport, R.A. 1979. Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Richmond Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

Rogers, E.M. with F.F. Shoemaker. 1971. The Communication of Innovations: A CrossCultural Approach. New York: Free Press (Macmillan).

Rosenthal, T. and B. Zimmerman. 1978. Social Learning and Cognition. New York: Academic Press.

Sahlins, M. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Stringer, C. and G. Gamble. 1993. In Search of the Neanderthals. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Wiessner, P. 1989. Style and changing relations between the individual and society. In: I.

Hodder, ed., The Meaning of Things. London: Unwin Hyman.

Yussen, S.R. and V.M. Levy. 1975. Effects of warm and neutral models on the attention of observational learners. Jour. Exp. Child Psycol. 20: 66-72.

Zahavi, A. 1977. The cost of honesty (further remarks on the handicap principle). J. Theoret. Biol. 67: 603-605.#

14-268 Evolution of Symbolic Traits

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