Ultrasocial Darwinism: Cultural Groups May Call the Evolutionary Shots in Modern Societies
Bower, Bruce, Science News
Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. And people, it seems, gotta concoct a colossal array of cultural practices, group affiliations, and ethnic identities.
Over tens of thousands of years, we have acquired a special aptitude for tailoring ideas and innovations to the shifting needs of such groups, then passing the finished products on to the next generation. And in no time at all, on an evolutionary scale, urban societies and political states have become commonplace. Their astounding achievements and horrifying failures amass at an ever-quickening, often overwhelming pace.
Modern civilization's paradoxical nature is expressed in the flexible adage, "We can send a man to the moon, so why can't we get rid of poverty (or stop the slaughter in Bosnia, or. . .)?"
An evolutionary process unique to our species has molded societies capable of shooting astronauts to the moon and millions of designated enemies to death, assert Peter J. Richerson of the University of California, Davis and Robert Boyd of the University of California, Los Angeles. Cultural highs and lows alike spring from the human facility for coalescing into social units that extend far beyond family and friends, the two anthropologists argue.
In these assemblies, genetically unrelated folks band together by adopting cultural and ethnic practices that elicit mutual goodwill and good samaritanism. In contrast, small groups hold together through the return of favors between individuals and threats of punishment for selfish misdeeds.
Large cultural congregations dance to a peppier evolutionary tune than the traditional Darwinian waltz, in which genetic traits useful to a species slowly move to center stage, according to Richerson and Boyd. Instead, ideas and behaviors that give some cultural groups a survival edge over rival groups jitterbug to prominence, sometimes with a push from innate human instincts and sometimes on their own.
Richerson and Boyd's approach builds on the proposal-first described by Richard Dawkins of Oxford University in England-that cultural evolution occurs through the …
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Publication information: Article title: Ultrasocial Darwinism: Cultural Groups May Call the Evolutionary Shots in Modern Societies. Contributors: Bower, Bruce - Author. Magazine title: Science News. Volume: 148. Issue: 22 Publication date: November 25, 1995. Page number: 366+. © 2009 Science Service, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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