On Cultural Group Selection

by Ben Cullen
On Cultural Group Selection
Ben Cullen
Current Anthropology
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Discussion and Criticism'

On Cultural Group Selection

Sherwood House, St. Dogmaels, Cardigan SA43 3LF, Wales, U.K. 9 VI 95

With reference to Papuan cultures, Soltis, Boyd, and Richardson (CA 36:473-94) make a very good case for a number of propositions: (I)cultural variation between groups and its maintenance through time via the induc- tion and enculturation of both children and newcomers from other groups; (2)the regular extinction of dysfunc- tional groups, such as those with less ritual activity and less group cohesion; (3) the replacement of extinct groups with new groups derived from more successful groups, new groups which maintain the cultural status quo of the group from which they were derived; (4) the frequency of group extinctions in Papua but (5) at a rate too slow to vindicate a group-functional explanation for the vast majority of cultural traits; and (6) the capacity of such processes to explain longer-term processes such as social evolution as embodied in the band-tribechiefdom-state sequence.

Soltis et al. call this process "cultural group selec- tion" to distinguish it from the discredited genetic the- ory. However, it is clear that the term "group selection" is used literally and not in a casual or metaphorical sense. Its presence in culture thereby embodies one of a number of "fundamental" differences between genetic and cultural process in the eyes of the authors. The exis- tence of such differences is generally accepted within the established cultural selectionist tradition which Boyd and Richerson have helped to develop (e.g., Dur- ham 1991, Boyd and Richerson 1985, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981, Pulliam and Dunford 1980). They may well be right.


Yet one purpose of a comment format is to broaden discussion by introducing alternative possibilities. One alternative hypothesis is that cultural change is per- fectly neo-Darwinian in every particular (Cullen 1990, 1993, n.d.). This "cultural virus" hypothesis is worth considering, among other reasons, on the "Oclzham's ra- zor" principle; why create a second body of neo-Darwinian principles (with "fundamental differences") when the first may already suffice (once altered to fit the purely physical peculiarities of a new medium)? De- fending the hypothesis requires demonstrating that

I. Permission to reprint items in this section may be obtained only from their authors.

"cultural group selection," like the other apparently "fundamental" differences of culture highlighted by the form of cultural selectionism advocated by Soltis et al., is really a familiar neo-Darwinian phenomenon in dis- guise.

Apart from functionalist anthropological uses of the concept as listed by Soltis et al., group selection was made famous by Wynne-Edwards (1962, 1986)~ Lorenz (I966), and Ardrey (I970) Although widespread in wild- life documentaries and high school syllabi, the concept is now considered to be a misconcevtion [Dawkins 1989:7; Trivers 1985:70) and is often referred'to as the "group selection fallacy." Altruistic behaviour must therefore be explained in other terms. Acceptable alter- natives within contemporary neo-Darwinian theory in- clude (I)kin selection and inclusive fitness and (2)reciprocal altruism. In the space that remains I will concentrate on the former vossibilitv

Perhaps "cultural group selection" is really "cultural lzin selection" (Cullen 1990, Heylighen 1992). The Pa- puan groups in question could have been successfully colonized by a myth complex which promotes group co- hesion and cooperation at the expense of the short-term genetic selfishness of the bodies it occupies (with the possible ironic and welcome by-product of long-term group selective benefit for those same bodies). "Group selection" benefits would then be a direct result of the short-term inclusive fitness of "individual" phenomena of another lzind altogether-cultural constructs.

Kin selection maytake a range of forms but generally involves the sacrifice of energy, life, or reproductive suc- cess in a way which promotes the reproductive success of close relatives. It may be voluntary (as when a fertile parent decides to invest in existing offspring and have no more children) or obligatory (as in the case of worker bees which are sterile and help their mother to produce fertile sisters). Either could be the case with Papuan reli- gion, although here the discussion would now involve the eauivalents of "varent" and "child" ideas. In the latter case, the queen or reproductive form of the reli- gion or myth complex could be the full version of the secret ritual knowledge of the elders and the worker


forms the incomplete copies in the minds of people at various stages of initiation. Ritual activity reinforces the sense of kinship between those who already share the knowledge of how to perform it and provides a forum for the reproduction of ever-more-secret bits of that knowledge until the new copies are complete. Appren- tice initiates work to harvest resources for new com- plete reproductive copies which may then found new groups and may also defend their own cultural "hive" (archive?) or go off and raid other cultural assemblages.

All copies of ritual knowledge in the group are closely related, being descended from the same master copies in the heads of the group's elders, and so the death of one (in warfare, for example) could still promote the sur- vival and reproduction of the elders' copies-the fertile cultural parent-ideas of those that have perished.

The notion of cultural "kin" selection as distinct from "group" selection-and the two constructs are quite dif- ferent-is further supported by the fact that in the Soltis et al. case studies there is no group continuity (no true phylogenetic descent) other than that created by cultural identity. While the genetic continuity of the expanding group could presumably be broken down through the inclusion of individuals from other groups which had disbanded, actual cultural descent would be consistently maintained as new group members were inducted through direct cultural transmission from established members of the group they joined. Thus, it would seem that the only thing that is truly experiencing reproduc- tive success in the Soltis et al. examples is the cultural constructs which define group identity in the first place.

References Cited
ARDREY, 1970. The social contract. London: Collins.


CULLEN,B. R. S. 1990. Darwinian views of history: Betzig's vir- ile psychopath versus the cultural virus. Crosscurrents 4:61-68.

. 1993. The Darwinian resurgence and the cultural virus critique. Cambridge Archaeological Iournal 3:179-202

, n.d. "Cultural virus theory and the eusocial pottery as- semblage," in Darwinian archaeologies. Edited by Herb Mash- ner. New York: Plenum Press.

DAWKINS,R. 1989 New edition. The selfish gene. Oxford and
New York: Oxford University Press.

On Syphilis and Witchcraft

Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, N. Y. I1794-43 64,

U.S.A. 26 v 95

Ross (CA 36:333) writes:

The debate over the origins of syphilis in Europe has tended to obscure any systematic consideration of its effects. Yet, it ma) have been implicated in the

wave of witchcraft that sweptacross much of Europe during the same period. Why most of its victims were women has never been sat- isfactorily explained, nor has the timing of this wide-

'pread of may pro- vide some clues.

He then seelzs to account for the correspondence in chro- nology between the incidence of this disease and the occurrence of witchcraft activities and proffers reasons that females rather than males were singled out as witches. He correctly calls attention to the temporal co- incidence between these two sociological phenomena and to the links between witchcraft, mental illness, stillbirths, and midwives. He is also convincing in iden- tifying the sexual nature of the disease as an explanation for why women rather than men were accused of prac- ticing witchcraft. He is evidently unaware, however, that such connections had already been remarlzed and explained I3 years earlier by Stanislav Andreski (1982).

Andreski argued that the necessary condition for the connection between syphilis and witchcraft accusations was the belief that witchcraft worked and could cause disease-a combination of attributes ubiquitously char- acteristic of witchcraft. Two "preparatory conditions," he postulated, were the church's machinery of repres- sion for dealing with heretics and a misogyny whose virulence was exacerbated in the course of the I 5th cen- tury by increased emphasis on clerical celibacy and the resulting sexual frustration. "The precipitating factor was the arrival of syphilis at the beginning of the 16th century, which evoked panic and a search for scapegoats, chosen with preference for the most defenseless mem- bers of the subjugated sex" (Andreski 1982:26). An- dreski's explanation for the eventual decline of witch- craft accusations took into account changes in the social impact of syphilis, an improvement in scientific knowl- edge, and a diminution in the Church's influence (p. 26):

During the closing decades of the 17th century, and

to an even greater extent during the early part of the

18th) there was an abatement of the severity of the

disease. This, together with the growing influence of

a more advanced body of scientific knowledge and

the decline of the influence of celibate clergy, led to

the disappearance of the mania among Europe's edu-

cated classes, which brought the trials to an historic


References Cited
ROSS,E. B. 1995. Syphilis, misogyny, and witchcraft in 16th- century Europe. CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY 36: 3 33-37. ANDRESKI,

S. 1982. The syphilitic shock: A new explanation of the "great witch craze" of the 16th and 17th centuries in the light of medicine and psychiatry. Encounter 45 jMay]:7-26.

On Objectivity VS. Militancy
E. N. AND ERs Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, Calif. 92521,U,S,A.23 vI 9i

I agree with several commentators that D,Andrade and

Scheper-Hughes (CA j6:399-440) have fewer differences of opinion than might appear. DIAndrade has made a longand distinguished career of looking at people's per- ceptions of person and emotion. He chose these topics because they seemed important (a "moral" claim, at least in his sense) and conducted his research with full attention to scientific ethics. Scheper-Hughes admits that she has to establish the facts if she is going to help

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