Retropost #1262 (14 Dec. 2006): Ideology and Evolution:
A message I just sent to the Narrative List, commenting an editorial of today's New York Times Online, on the influence of culture in the evolution of the human species:
"We are used to the idea that species evolve because of changes in their natural environment. But part of the natural environment of humans is culture itself, and it is striking to think that genetic adaptation in humans has been driven, at least in part, by how humans have chosen to live. The dynamism of human culture has always seemed to move faster than evolution itself, but this discovery suggests otherwise. To understand this about ourselves is to realize how little we know about the long-term effects of the ways we choose to live."
Thus the editorial. And my commentary:
> "We are used to the idea that species evolve because of changes in their natural environment. But part of the natural environment of humans is culture itself",
Sure, if natural selection has some say in the survival of the fittest, culture certainly does have some pretty clear ideas about who are the fittest... (or prettiest, or ugliest, or richest...). And these "evolutionary criteria" are spread, and reworked, through literature, and through other ideological apparatuses and communicative protocols. Stephen Jay Gould used to say that unlike biological evolution, cultural change is Lamarckian, preserving (some) acquired traits (and rejecting others, I guess).
PS. The discussion continues. Brian McHale considers terms such as Lamarckian etc. are metaphorical when applied to culture. Tony Jackson agrees:
i think i have to agree with Brian. though it's plenty intriguing to think the analogy between bio and cultural evolution, you have to leave a lot out to get it to work.
as i understand it, evolution involves a random mutation on the genetic level that, if a whole raft of just plain lucky other stuff is in place, can lead to a larger-scale change that, if a whole raft of other just plain lucky other stuff is in place, can then possibly become an inherited trait. How would we figure in the randomness that is, as i understand it, essential to natural selection??
And I rejoin:
Actually I agree that "Lamarckian" or "Darwinian" as applied to cultural phenomena only yield (at best) useful metaphors. One should not renounce the heuristic value of those analogies, though. Evolutionary doctrine proved pretty fruitful as a source of ideas for Brunetière (who came before the Russian Formalists and before Eliot, who also drew on him in this respect I think). There is no reason why some of these notions, in their present-day versions, might not spur similarly fruitful ideas now. Think for instance of Gould's emphasis on catastrophism, massive extinction, and randomness as an evolutionary "engine": the wiping out of a culture, literally or in the cultural colonialist sense of wiping out, certainly has likewise some visible effects on the memetics of that culture's productions and their contribution to the globalized melting pot.
And, taking another tack, there is certainly an evolutionary dimension to literature as a cultural phenomenon—evolutionary in the literal sense. This ought to be dealt with in its own proper level (which to some extent at least means literary history, literary theory, cultural criticism etc., rather than biology), but there is, to be sure, much work to be done in exploring the evolutionary implications of cultural phenomena and the links between the emergence of specific phenomena and a general theory of human evolution, more specifically the evolution of consciousness. I am thinking of evolutionary and emergentist philosophy, going back to Vico, and in the American tradition to thinkers such as Peirce and George Herbert Mead. Now which is the specific emergentist import of a given literary figure, a given use of point of view, or of represented speech, or which is the specific contribution to the development of consciousness of this or that theorist's work... that's too long for a play.