Thoughts on Cultural Evolution


The main idea: Hayek’s concept of cultural evolution must be furthered by taking into account the conflicts between different replicating entities: the group, the individual and the meme itself.

11. Cultural Evolution

1.1 Friedrich Hayek’s last work (and the one I personally find the most compelling) The Fatal Conceit  elucidates his concept of cultural evolution. In short, Hayek states that social mores, intermediate in nature between reason and instinct, are subject to an evolutionary process. Those human groups that sport the mores which are better suited to boosting their numbers will expand at the expense of groups following less adapt traditions. Though such norms are (most of the time, at least) not the products of any deliberate human rationality, they still ‘behave’ as if some human intelligence periodically reviewed their usefulness, a special case of Hayek’s celebrated spontaneous order.

1.2 I will have to skip here Hoppe’s critique of Hayekian cultural evolution (we may meet again, but for now let me state that this lecture sounds very Hayekian for a critic of cultural evolution), and rather focus on but a single issue: namely, that as stated by Hayek this model is clearly one of group selection, a set of theories which have been extensively (and, to my mind, convincingly) critiqued. Can Hayekian cultural evolution jump past this limitation and can we gain any additional insights in the process?

Of course, but we must go deeper!

Of course, but we must go deeper!

2. I am not my group

2.1 In order to frame the evolutionary process envisioned by Hayek, we must determine the replicating entity: in this case what evolves is a special class of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins famously called memes, or thought patterns. To Hayek and us, among all the possible memes, only those that guide human action and are yet separate form rational thought or instincts, are of interest.

2.2 Hayek claims that different such mores allow for human societies to be constituted differently, and that these societies will vary in their ability to transmute their environment into further group members. Those societies that do better at this game than others shall thrive and expand, passing along their cultural memes.

2.3 The issue with this picture is that the replicator is the meme, not the group. Though in a sense we could say that the human group also has the ability to ‘reproduce’ by boosting its numbers, the meme itself has the ability to evolve independently of the group, while the converse is not the case. Instead of focusing on the group, we should focus on the meme.

2.4 Let us provide an example form the field of biological evolution: a wolf pack. Let us suppose that a particularly aggressive wolf pack is more likely to catch prey than packs similar in numbers but lacking in enthusiasm. In time, we would expect the aggresivity trait to propagate itself in the wolf population, as aggressive packs outcompete less aggressive ones. Yet this conclusion would not necessarily follow. This is because individual wolves can evolve separately from their pack.

2.5 Suppose that we have a very aggressive and successful pack. A single wolf is born with a genetic mutation that makes it inclined to hold back when the pack is charging some large prey. The hunting prowess of the pack is only marginally affected yet this individual wolf’s chances of being maimed are lowered and it still gets to eat from any prey caught. The mutant wolf not only manages to do better than his timid fellows in timid packs, but even betters the aggressive fellows in its own pack.

To the degree that it’s head won’t be chopped off by Liam, a timid wolf is a lucky wolf

To the degree that it’s head won’t be chopped off by Liam, a timid wolf is a lucky wolf

2.6 Thus, though the pack would be ‘better off’ by being composed exclusively of aggressive specimens, individual wolves in an aggressive pack are better off by being less aggressive. Focusing on the pack will lead us to expect sometimes unreasonable evolutionary results, given that the replicating entity is the individual animal. And the very same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the individual wolf vs. its heart, and the heart versus one valve, and so on until we reach the smallest independent replicator: the gene itself.

2.7 One can now see the issue with Hayek’s model of cultural evolution: what may be ‘good’ for the group may not be ‘good’ for  the individual, and what may be ‘good’ for the individual may not be ‘good’ for the meme, the least independent replicator in the model.

2.8 Let us imagine a society that places the highest value of honesty: each member expects honesty from all others, and himself acts with the outmost uprightness. We can expect such a society to thrive and expand, at the expense (i.e. by displacing the memes of) other, less rigorous societies. But then, a single crook in such a virtuous society would thrive: being used to fair deals and to extending trust to all members of the group, the victims of the crook would be far more amenable to his tricks than their fellows living in less upstanding groups. The crook could himself thrive in such a society, at the expense of all other members.

2.9 Thus, the first amendment of cultural evolution must be the inclusion of the concept of Evolutionary Stable Strategies. In the example above, crooked individuals would increase in numbers (either by immigration, or else by mentoring from the existing crook).

2.10 Of course, the more crooks went around, the less would everyone be ready to just blindly trust anyone as informer days, making conwork harder. Also, the more the crooks, the higher the chances that a crook would encounter his equal, again lowering the income from such a fine art as fraud. Finally, the society as a whole would find itself able to produce far less in this general environment of fear and distrust, and it would lose its edge to other societies. And the less is produced, the less there is to steal.

2.11 Where the process of ‘crokisation’ of such a society would stop we cannot say. Perhaps it would go all the way, dragging this once proud group to the level of its peers. Perhaps, the concept of a locally optimal strategy would ensure that one or several cores of honest member would survive, mostly trading with one-anther, amid a generally unsafe society. Perhaps, the returns from fraud would diminish to the point where it made no more sense for additional members to choose fraud as their way of life, producing a balance between crooks and upright folks, allowing the group as a whole to retain some of its former edge.

Let us ask for Sawyer’s opinion

Let us ask for Sawyer’s opinion on the matter

2.12 What is important is to understand that the simple Hayekian logic probably won’t hold in such a society. Though it would be ‘better’ for the group for all its members to be trusting and themselves honest, the interests of individual member would not allow for this easy equilibrium.

3. Viruses of the mind

3.1 But there is a further, perhaps greater, conflict inherent in cultural evolution: the individual vs. the meme itself.

Deeper still!

Deeper still!

3.2 The meme is a mental replicator and has been aptly considered a sort of ‘virus of the mind’. The similarity can be exploited to some length.

3.3 As for a virus, the very first factor dictating the evolutionary success of a meme is the degree to which it has adapted to its immediate environment. For the Hayekian meme, this immediate environment is the human mind, a mind which, pace our beloved armchair social engineers, is not a tabula rasa.

3.4 Rather, the human mind comes preloaded with its instinctive software, software designed to function in the days of small, roving bands of hunter gatherers .

3.5 That this environment has changed dramatically since is no great revelation. Indeed, judging from the innumerable ways in which our metal make-up hinders the establishment of a Free Society (for a single example, David Friedman manages to explain the irrational belief in ‘just prices’ in evolutionary terms). Thus, for all the adverse long-term effects that a meme may bring to a population of bearers, its immediate success is dictated by its ability to adapt to the human instinctual make-up.

3.6 Indeed, the seemingly limitless success of the endless variations of the communism-within/total-war-without meme, which gave us militant Millennialism (see Rothbard in Requiem for Marx), Marxism, Socialism, Syndicalism, Fascism, National Socialism, Peronism and what have you, should be enough to make this point.

3.7 The conflict between the meme and the individual and the group cannot be guaranteed to produce an outcome that is always favorable to the group, as per Hayek. Still, the wholly pessimistic view, that the immediate interest of the meme will consistently outweigh any adverse future effects of human populations is not tenable either.

3.8 To see why, we must understand that such a conflict between the immediate interest of the parasite and that of the infected individual and group already exists. The evolutionary success of a virus is indeed determined, in the short run, by its infective ability. Yet, if the virus becomes too good at his job of farming resources out of its hosts, decimating the whole population, it will subsequently die itself, being no longer able to find new, live hosts.

3.9 Indeed, truly lethal viruses are very, very rare, and pandemics often happen with new viruses which have had no time to evolve away their pandemic abilities. I’d say that the most successful virus by far is not any of the our modern bogeymen, but the humble common cold, which has managed to survive for eons, and will probably defat any attempts to cure it.

3.10 Even further, most life forms of parasitical origins have managed to form a symbiosis with their former hosts, up to the point of being integrated into the host organism on a perpetual basis. Given time, the conflict between the immediate interest of the parasite and the general interest of the host population may converge.

4. Where is your freedom, if it’s so good?  

4.1 We have just scraped the surface of the wealth of information that evolutionary biology may yield in the development of Hayekian cultural evolution.

4.2 We already saw that the conflicts between the meme vs. the individual vs. the group suffice to prescribe caution when speaking of the superiority that a given meme may confer on any group. Adding that we know little of the mechanisms of cultural transmission (are traditions taught by the family at an early age, or does the individual picks those up and discards them as he goes along?) further muddles the waters for Hayekians.

4.3 Seen from this perspective, libertarians should find it marginally easier to answer to the question that will inevitably follow any convincing libertarian argument: if your Free Society is so good, why don’t we already have it?

4.4 If a meme is to survive long enough to produce discernible effects on a human populations, is must first ace the test of immediate transmission to the human mind, and then that of the dissonance between the personal interests of the individual host and those of the group. These hurdles may well be insuperable and will, at the very least, require time for such ‘unnatural’ (i.e. ill-adapted to the human mind) memes as those professed by libertarians.

4.5 And I’m assuming that, once adopted by a group as an Evolutionary Stable Strategy, libertarian ethics would indeed confer an unambiguous advantage vis a vis other groups. If, as I myself believe, they would be a hindrance for a society physically having to fight for its survival, than we must add the hurdle of defense on top of the first two.

We just removed that hurdle again

We just removed that hurdle again

4.6 And yet, there is ground for cautious optimism in the cacophony of conflicts of interest between different replicating entities. If evolutionary biology is to give as any indication, we would say that the longer the great game is afoot, the more likely are the interests of different replicators to either converge in symbiosis or produce a stable equilibrium.  The common cold may have gotten off a slow start, and may indeed have struggled to survive when human populations either got decimated by far stronger viruses (Medieval Europe) or didn’t poses much of an immune system (the Americas).

4.7 Still yours truly is writing this suffering from precisely that common cold, and thankfully not from ebola, HIV (assuming that such a virus even exists) or any other real killer.  Today, our very survival depends on the cooperation of former parasites that manage our digestion at the organic and cellular levels for us.

4.8 Likewise, the mores that drive us to respect the Non Aggression Principle are unheard of in our evolutionary history. They are ill-suited to replicate in the human mind, and are liable to create heavy short-term conflicts of interest between individuals and the groups they frequent. Should they ever establish themselves in any largish group, there is no guarantee that they will allow it to flourish against all odds.

4.9 Yet, the power of libertarianism lies in the fact that it alone can drive human progress to its natural limit. It alone can provide for the harmony of long-run interests of the individual, family, meme and society. If our immune systems and cells are the living proof that short-term handicaps can be convincingly countered by long-term symbiosis, than the ability of libertarian memes to manage the same stunt, despite an immediate disadvantage compared to their collectivist counterparts cannot, and indeed must not be ruled out.

Now wake

Now wake


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cultural Evolution

  1. […] to its development, Hayekian logic would expect this community to loose members (subject to complications). If such a community adopts trial by jury, the process is considerably sped up. Norms materialize […]

  2. […] host of mental mechanisms firmly put in place by evolution eons ago. We have already discussed (1, 2) how the human mind seems to have been optimized to operate in small, roving bands of […]

  3. wernerschwartz 02/27/2013 at 06:44 Reply

    Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

  4. Etjon Basha 02/28/2013 at 13:18 Reply

    Thank you, gentleman!

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