We all know that, when the cell was discovered in biology, the scientific concept of life became quite different......It was discovered that all the madly different plants, all the madly different animals have somehow the same "building plan" based on the sequence "cell - organ - organ system - specific form"!

For quite some time there is a tremendous nuisance in my mind: Could there be a similar transitional condition in the concept of human cultural evolution? Is there something like a "cell" in our endlessly complex and endlessly varied system of cultures?

Please send me a lifebelt!

Nold Egenter

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This is quite an interesting point.
I have regarded for quite some time that ever since culture expanded with the aid of language, or rather the development of language along with its structural physical changes to the brain, there has been little biological evolution in the homo genus. Cultural production and reproduction replaced biological evolution.
And yet, as any scientist may define a specific cell and trace its origins, so that can be done to culture. Nothing is ever created, simply they are transformed and recycled from precious forms! There is a great example in art with the works of Picasso (Bull's head, for instance).
The meme theory of Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene - i believe there has been published a new edition recently) is also a good start point to further develop that question.
I wrote an article recently which dealt specifically with the determinism of human behavior based on a comparison of the behavior of complex systems in physics. (i can mail it to you, no charge hehehe) The base idea is that human behavior, even though pre-determined like the the behavior of complex systems, cannot be predicted due to the amount of variables that have to be taken into account in its construction, whether these be biological, cultural or environmental variables! There is also an in depth look on the appearance of the incest taboo from a biologically based avoidance to the appearance of a specific cultural norm. (Whenever i think of evolution, sex has to be in the mix of the discussion.)
Vitor, I'd like to take to task the statement that:

Vitor Emanuel Ribeiro Teixeira said:
This is quite an interesting point.
I have regarded for quite some time that ever since culture expanded with the aid of language, or rather the development of language along with its structural physical changes to the brain, there has been little biological evolution in the homo genus. Cultural production and reproduction replaced biological evolution.

There are a few assumptions in the idea that 1) there has been little biological development since the development of language/culture and 2) Cultural re/production replaced biological evolution. Such as:

- Language is synonymous with the development of "culture"
- "Culture" exists as a discrete unit that can be measured apart from "Biology"
- We (humans) are no longer biologically evolving

I'll start with the 3rd point- the notion that humans are no longer biologically evolving. This to me seems to assume that evolution (the selection of certain traits) is progressive rather than largely random (subject to major environmentally- and socially-based events, such as genetic drift), and in addition, is confined to certain parameters -- hence your comment that the brain's recent development, because its rapid expansion has correlated with the development of language, does not belong within the realm of "biological" evolution but is instead "cultural". There is a lot of literature out there now that takes apart the biology/culture distinction -- and I think any discussion of evolution has to question this. Can culture really be measured as a discrete unit? Social scientists have found any notion of "culture" to be incredibly elusive. Furthermore, there is a great deal of nonhuman animal behavior that suggests that various types of communication -- linguistic or pre-linguistic and otherwise -- and empathic relationships (and is emotion cultural or biological?) appear outside and prior to the human lineage, suggesting the boundaries are much fuzzier than common assumptions would lead us to believe. I would argue that in order to discuss evolution it is necessary to question the categories we consider basic, which themselves are rooted in a certain history, culture, and language. Doing this could open up a whole new line of discussion about how to redefine and understand evolution.

I could go more into it but don't have a lot of time-- just wanted to raise the question.
I agree with the idea that culture cannot be measured as a single unit. This is only a snapshot of continuous variation that we use to classify different traits. The culture concept is completely dependent on the organismic metaphor and ever since Durkheim this has been prevalent in social sciences. A culture is like an organism made up by various organs that ultimately work to benefit the greater organism. Thus, it is usually argued that social institutions, religion, etc, are these necessary organs that constitutes the culture. This is therefore a bounded idea but as we all know there are no clearcut boundaries. Seen through a a snapshot of duration (the present) we can delineate "American culture" from "British culture", but seen in a long term perspective these boundaries are even more blurry.
The existence of platonic forms would strongly suggest that [evolutionary] transitional [form]s don’t exist. And if there are only lawful morphological forms, transitional forms, even in principle, couldn’t exist. Transitional forms and Platonic Forms don’t fit well together in any theory. It appears the two are mutually exculsive.

In engineering we have many platonic forms. Engineers are taught to recognize and implement certain canned architectures. A lot of systems biology is mapping biological forms to the forms engineers recognize.

[The] quest for “correct designs” ... makes sense in a world of ideal forms, platonic forms. We instinctively have platonic forms in our mind. We have a sense that a defect is a defect, that an error is an error.

In the Darwinian world, it’s all about selective advantage. A blind cave fish is “selectively advantaged”. Defect is only a relative term. However in the eyes of plato, a blind cave fish is less than the ideal, it is a broken form. In such case, natural seleciton helped to infuse the defect in the population and thus introduce a defect that is not consistent with the ideal pattern.

The notion of platonic forms does not seem to be compatible with Darwinian evolution.

The idea of Platonic ideal forms in biology is an old one. The now mostly defunct tradition of orthogenesis is essentially a version of Platonic ideal forms applied to biology (and an argument can also be made that Lamarck’s progressive theory of evolution by means of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is as well). However, and contrary to what some might expect, applying the concepts of orthogenesis to "intelligent design theory" ("ID") is problematic, because in its early 20th century form, orthogenesis was considered to be progressive, but not goal oriented (i.e. teleological).

In addition to the early orthogenesists, two other names stand out in this tradition: D’Arcy Thompson and Stephen Jay Gould. Both were primarily concerned with the origin and evolution of form, and both developed theories of evolution based on this. Even J.B.S. Haldane (one of the founders of the “modern evolutionary synthesis”) wrote in this tradition in his essay "On Being the Right Size". Haldane’s musings on the relationship between size and constraints on form have become known as “Haldane’s Principle”, and have recently been applied to urban planning.

The newly emerging science of evolutionary developmental biology (”evo-devo”) has some similarities to orthogenesis, especially insofar as both are attempts to explain why the evolution of overall form (i.e. phenotype) appears to be constrained to certain types of forms, rather than all possible forms. The orthogenesists asserted that there are certain forms that are much more likely than others. These forms are similar in some ways to Platonic forms, in that there is no necessarily materialistic explanation for the predominance of certain forms, at least according to the theory of orthogenesis.

Evo-devo explains the similarities within “formal types” with reference to shared developmental programs, especially among eukaryotes. This shared developmental programming is based on the hierarchical gene regulation systems, most of which are based on homeotic gene regulatory mechanisms. Similar developmental constrains appear to exist among plants and fungi, but not so much among prokaryotes and multicellular protists. So, looking for things that resemble Platonic ideal forms in biology will probably involve identifying and categorizing the various developmental “channels” which are produced by these homeotic gene regulatory systems.

None of this, of course, says how the various hierarchical gene regulation systems originally evolved. This is another of those “deep time” problems, such as the origin of life and the origin of the genetic code. As I have commented repeatedly in the past, I believe that questions about such origins are almost certainly unanswerable using current empirical methods.

I also personally believe that the question of the origin of Platonic ideal forms (if such things exist and are empirically distinguishable from the various “channels” produced by the action of homeotic gene regulatory mechanisms) is both an open question and one that is almost certainly not answerable using empirical methods.



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