The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection


By W. G. Runciman

Cambridge University Press

Cambridge – 2009




Vii – This book aims to bring evolutionary theory to sociology.

It asserts that, “collective human behavior-patterns should be analyzed as the outwardly observable expression of information affecting phenotype transmitted at three separate but interacting levels – biological, cultural, social.”



Page 1


2 – Darwin said that language and morality were part of selection and he understood group selection.


3 – Competitive selection works both at the cultural level (memes – packages of information transmitted from mind to mind by imitation or learning) and at the social (rule governing practices which define mutually interacting institutional roles).


The mechanisms of heritable variation and competitive selection are different in biological, cultural, and social evolution.


4- “There are still many people, sociologists included, for whom ‘neo-Darwinism’ implies either the social-Darwinian racism of the late-nineteenth century or the reductionist sociobiology of the laste-twentieth.”


Though our acts are selected, they may still be purposeful.


5 – The success of teachings depends not on our own mental states, but on features of their environment.


This is different than claiming innovators have no impact.   But, ads, etc., are tested, modified and re-launched according to adoption.


6 – anti and ultra Darwininians wonder at whether or not the application of Darwin to culture is just a metaphor.

Much of science is a metaphor.  Just because electricity is not really a ‘current’ doesn’t mean we stop talking that way.


7 - And, information is not a metaphor – despite the fact that it doesn’t mirror genetic selection exactly.


And, it is more accurate than historian’s “march of ideas” which take off and surmount obstacles.


8 – Anti Darwinists say culture can only be explained on its own terms, without any reference to theory, model or analogy drawn from biology.   But at the biological, social and cultural there is “evoked behavior, where the agent is responding directly and instinctively to some feature of the environment; acquired behavior where the agent is imitating or has learned from some other agent, whether directly or indirectly; and imposed behavior, where the agent is performing a social role.”


9 – We must see through the clutter to recognize these.


10 – Social, as opposed to individual trial-and-error, learning happens in other species.


Cultural anthropology (with its emphasis on the unique) and behavioral psychology, (with its ignoring of inner mental states / beliefs) retarded the advance of the Darwinian paradigm.


11 – Sociologists should get into people’s heads.  But, how far?


12 – We cannot do the “if I were a horse” position. But we know what people feel / think like in other positions - chimps too.


14 – We must discern between intentions and motives.  You may give gifts to get into heaven, but it might also aid your reproductive success via status.


15 – Bees have different morals and we would be like them, if them.


16 – Problematically, Darwin once or twice said we have ‘higher’ standards of morality than other animals.  We need thorough naturalism.


17 – Why did Darwin’s ideas not spread faster?  Spencer and Marx, who both said evolution was taking us to an ideal end (Marx collectively and Spencer individualistically).


18 – Then there was the erroneous idea of “social Darwinism.”  Survival of the fittest implied that some were better than others.  This is an error.  We survive or don’t, like cockroaches.


These ideas themselves spread due to a favorable environment.


19 – Crane Brinton said “Who now reads Spencer?”  But, Spencer was rediscovered by ‘developmental’ and ‘modernization’ theorists.


20 – As for Marx, nothing suggests that the process of natural selection will lead to dictatorship of the proletariat.


22 – Yes, ala Mill, where you are born predict your beliefs.  But, those beliefs are not all the same and you can change your beliefs.


23 – Yet introspection is not the only or most reliable reason to say why you believe what you believe or behave as you do.


24 – Nietzsche and Darwin made a powerful joint assault on the faith in human progress.  But, it lingers.


Minister Myron Adams said “that society is most fit which is most Christ-like.”


25 – But god has chosen to design a non-teleological world.  British people pointed to better sanitation as an objective marker of their progress.  But, we move from one state to another, without direction foretold.



Page 27


In looking at wage negotiations, a Marxist sees exploitation, a Rational Choice Theorist sees utility maximization and a Behaviorist sees operant conditioning.  They all understand each other perfectly.


28 – But the least successful will die: no more elan vital or phrenology. But, the old ones are not displaced by neo-Darwinian thought.  But all must work in reference to this new paradigm.


29 – The neo-Darwinian answer to “just what is going on here?’ is ‘the phenotypic behavior outcomes at population level of information transfer.’  They then trace it back to how it was encoded, reproduced and won.


They are sociologists and so work at the population level.


30 – But the process of selection necessarily involves both the information reproduced and the organisms, minds, or roles that carry it, and the same entities work as both interactors and replicators.


All selectionist explanations are ‘just-so’ stories, where the link between selective pressure and evolutionary outcome is only seen in hindsight.  But there is nothing wrong with asking how the elephant got its trunk. And, there is nothing wrong with the answer being complicated.


A just-so story has to be the right one, whether about how Protestantism evolved out of Christianity or electronics came out of science.   Just so stories are theoretically grounded and evidentiary.


31 – In biographies, protagonists may see themselves as winners, for selection theorists they are generators of variation, one of which survived.


32 – The right ‘just-so’ stories will have to specify what it was in the environment which gave the critical mutation or recombination of information their greater probability of reproduction and diffusion than their competitors.


33 – In natural selection, lateral gene transfer and hybridization are unusual due to species isolation.  Cultures, by contrast are permeable. But, phylogenetic tree models still prove useful as somewhat distinct and coherent behavioral clusters still exist.


34 – Both cultures and societies tend to be both stable and resilient.


Sociologists show biologically evoked, culturally acquired and socially impaired behaviors. This works for other areas too:  Inheritance, for example, involves genetic relatedness, cultural constructs, and social rules.


36 – While some tribes are less peaceful than others.  Violence in males is a potential waiting to be evoked.   There is often a cultural reason to fight.  And, armies impose social roles.


37 – The idea of gene-culture coevolution needs specification.  There are three mechanisms.  We also need to look at “gene-society co-evolution’ and ‘culture-society co-evolution.’ Or ‘gene-culture-society co-evolution.’


38 – The dairy industry is involved in lactose tolerance too.   Armies, banks, temples, courts, are also social structures that need recognition.


39 – And the information encoded in these institutional practices go forward regardless of how successive incumbents individual motives.  So social institutions are as important as beliefs and attitudes.


In cultural evolution, mutant memes emerge through reinterpretation in the minds that carry them.  In social evolution, mutant practices emerge through renegotiation between the incumbents of interacting roles.


40 – Immediate return is adaptive for hunter – gatherers and delayed return for agriculturalists.


Historically, the transition from acquired to imposed behavior takes place when interpersonal relationships (leader follower, senior junior, foreigner indigenous) have been supplemented by, or converted into, formal relations between institutional roles.


41 – One surpluses happen, we have the potential for imposed, institutional roles. But Sumerian times we needed  institutionalized political, economic, and ideological roles.


44 – Just as there are anthropologists who underestimate biological influences on cultural evolution, so are there sociologists who underestimate cultural influences on social institutions.


The meaning of money is as cultural as economic.


45 – Practices in all three dimensions of social space are always at the mercy of the fragility of the cultural construct on which all social constructions depend.  We need this common culture to sustain institutions.


A collective behavior patter of deference to superiors is vulnerable to memetic mutation.  Economic roles too. 


Since there are three levels of selection, there are three levels of adaptation.


And, genes, memes, or practices might adapt for different uses in conditions different from those they emerged under. Variations can be adaptive at one level and not another.


One example?  The French wore Red Trousers in the start of WWI to show their optimism.


47 – Also Shakers refused to reproduce and modern humans are declining in fertility.


For present, in the competition between natural and cultural selection, the cultural is winning in more affluent and better-educated populations.


China’s one child policy.  Impose, not evoked or acquired.


Just as cultural selection can compete directly with natural selection, so can social selection compete directly with cultural selection.   This happens when wage labor came into sharecropping societies.


48 – There is wide scope for designed as well as evolutionary adaptiveness at all three levels. Biologically, animal breeding.  Culturally, advertising. Institutions get changed.  But these only work if the environment is favorable. 


49 – Social scientists cannot knock out a gene sequence and breed. 


50 - Timescale on cultural / social change is difficult too.



50 – But reality gives us some natural experiments. Crop growing patterns persisted in Germans who moved to the Midwest of the US.


51 – Ashkenazi Jews got brighter via a three-way interaction between social, cultural, and genetic.


Selecting for what?  Phenotypes.  Beaks.  Well social and cultural often interact and are not so particulate.  We could say the basis of both is information flow.  But, that is very tiny and we’re looking at what makes society.


53 - Still we look for, the circumstances that allow the transmission of information in a way that ensures its transgenerational (lateral and vertical) reproduction.


While ultra Darwinists don’t like the word ‘meme’ as it suggests more analogy to gene than they like, it is convenient to have a word stand for whatever items or packages of information make.


54 – The information goes into the head and the behavior is effected, but we don’t know these mechanisms, it is black box like.


One complex of co-adapted memes displaces its competitors and impacts behavior.  So far that’s all.


55 – In no culture does the washing of hands before a meal worked out by children themselves.


56 – “I have talked up to now about the transmission of memes from mind to mind as if the concept of social, as opposed to individual, learning was less problematic than it is.


57 – Learning by instruction is a kind of imitating.  But people quote “Do what I say not what I do?” against bad models.


The big diff is that learning is much more costly than imitation.  “Cultural traditions will be more likely to persist unchanged among populations where individual learning is costly, and in a population consisting entirely of unreflective imitators.”


58 – We don’t know which made stone axes.  Artifacts are extended phenotypic effects of techno-memes which at the same time encode them.  Archeologists try to go from artifact to meme creating it.  But we don’t know that the first Bible printers cared about religion.


59 – When the objects of selection are practices rather than memes, it is not to be assumed that the rules encoded in legislation determine phenotypes on the ground.


Institutions make people believe in priests as such.


61 – What of group v. individual selection?  There are good reasons for thinking that intra-group cooperation was favoured by intergroup selection throughout the entire course of hominid evolution.


Darwin supported group selection.  “But, once cultural selection is operating alongside natural selection, migration between groups does not pose the same difficulty for group selection, since imitation and learning enable migrants to acquire the memes which are dominant in the group.”


62 – Armies win due to individual qualities, but more so due to collective coordination advantages.


63 – But individual / group selection is just two ways of looking at the same thing.



Page 64


Similarities between us and chimps are unmistakable.


65 – Folks ask how can a species with such infinite thoughts end in such stable combinations?


The distinction between passion and reason remains – in this post-Plato world.


66 – We’re not so good at logical thought and our emotions are not consistent.


We seem to have an innate disposition towards conformity. We’re habitual. We do fast and frugal evaluations.


67 – Packages of co-adapted memes make the environment more manageable.  We ignore evidence that conflicts with our favorite hypothesis.


68 – Totems, gestures, dialects and other markers are evoked expressions of dispositions, capacities and susceptibilities formed by natural, not cultural, selection.


The same holds for our disposition to categorize and disassociate from out groups.


69 – Natural selection doesn’t say who you will designate as out-group, but you’ll to so to some group.


Real-life strategic choices reflect natural, cultural, and selection strategies.


73 – Anthropologists are often in a bind as they stress culture’s uniqueness and then insist on a common humanity.


74 – Selectionists accept that love and anger, etc., has variations according to culture and selection. Love and anger are felt by babies, they are not social constructs.


75 – The ability to calculate individual self interest is also problematic for comparative sociologists. That is because they think rational choice explains more than it does.


76 – Rational choice theory has been criticized as ‘pre-Darwinian.”  In some cultures, in some regards, people’s religion  is irrational, in some cultures, it is more of a choice.


77 – No one thinks the choice of wood for a canoe is either completely thought out rationally each time or happens without considering practicalities.


77 – What then about the innate disposition to ‘probe the social order for weaknesses and look for openings to improve one’s standing.’ As Frank de Waals put it.


Self aggrandizers are put into check by joking, etc.  Genetic influence may have lessened it, but with the surplus of agriculture, it came roaring back.


78 – “Hereditary social status will develop everywhere the economic and social circumstances will allow it.”


79 – Contests between cheats, defectors, free-riders, and self-aggrandizers and the strong reciprocators are waged at all levels of inequality and in all environments.


Hunter and gatherers environments were anything but uniform – geographically and socially.   This makes dispositions, capacities, and susceptibilities persist.


80 – Of 1.4 slaves in the America’s 40 percent worked on sugar plantations.   It is said the sweet tooth is genetic.  But cultural selection (new drinks) and institutions amplified it.


Another example is the universal response to rhythm as used by militaries.


81 – Soldiers writing about their willingness to die for the ‘fatherland’ may not be able to account for the appeal.  People who put sexy women in ads either.


82 – Army troops, the Germans, who came from the same town fought more effectively.  Primitive sociality.


This does not mean that evoked behavior is always instinctive and never comes from the rational brain.


83 – When we decide whether to be patient so that all can safely exit a burning theater or run in panic to save ourselves is a rapid calculation.


84 – Icelandic sagas reveal preferring kin.


85 – This is again three levels: memes support family honor in getting revenge for a dead relative – though these folks may be very similar to you.


86 – And southern rural areas have more violence that is argument related.


“The explanation is not to be sought in behavior genetics: there is no reason to suppose that they [southerners] are innately predisposed to violence.”  REALLY on what evidence?  Run the test in the North again.


87 – “there is a sense in which comparative sociology might be called one among other sub-disciplines of comparative primatology.”


The bribes chimps exchange are not unlike votes in parliament.


88 – Humans and chimps switch from defiance to submission, both make sudden displays of sympathy or affection. 


89 – There are things we cannot help doing as hominids, loving, hating, playing, fighting, dissembling, grieving and rejoicing.


We don’t know the evolution of language.  But, likely we used it to shout, growl, laugh, sing, and cheer before we used it for debate.


90 – But no chimp developed self-awareness about its own existence.  


91 – They do recognize, however, unfair exchanges.


Dogs don’t have guilt they have shame.  Guilt is interior, shame public.


Only in primates with speech can cultural selection begin to generate out of selected more sense.



Page 92


How hereditary are meme dispositions?   No one in a culture believes in all the memes.  And, those who do interpret them differently. This is so even though the beliefs may be underwritten by institutional sanctions.


93 – We must also note that there is no human population that does not have some beliefs in its heads.


94 – And all doubt. But comparative sociologists are population folks.  They look for trends and must then ask when we can say one meme has supplanted another.


95 – In general, memes are more likely to be inherited by imitation than by learning, in stable collective behavior-pattern societies.


96 – Sociologists studying ‘public opinion’ in the mid-20th century US found it was two steps – leaders to followers within local communities.  Thus deference to prestige


People cue at popular restaurants and avoid identical unpopular ones.   But, once cultural and social selection are done, institutional power may be more important than memes in elongating their lives.


97 – Punished memes / doubts are less likely to be communicated to offspring.  Social selection not cultural selection may be more important.


98 – Christian scientists likely took it up because they wanted to be around such people.


What is religious?  Church, yes, but what of civil weddings? The national anthem?  The selectionist answer is not doctrinal but asks what co-adaptive memes / behavior patterns go with it?


99 – Cameroon has the ‘fang’ people.


100 – The emotional and rational parts of memes may be co-adaptive, no matter whether the design is conscious or unconscious.


101 – Weber nor anyone else has shown evidence that successful Protestants were motivated by beliefs around predestination.  It may just be social / institutional pressure to conform to what you slightly get and may not believe.


Ideas that are not obvious and felt with emotion stay the longest in our heads.  This is the appeal of miracles. They are unbelievable, but you do.


102 – Unconventional dress can enhance your status.  Beliefs that enhance the self-esteem of holders have an edge.


Doctrinal memes depend for their reproductive success on semantic memory, routinization, and standardization of teaching.   Imagistic memes work on episodic memory, infrequent performance and high arousal in groups without central leadership.


103 – Initiation rituals enhance commitment to memes.


Optimally, we should have a combo of ‘doctrinal’ memes which are easily understood and frequently repeated, with imagistic memes whose esoteric meaning is encoded in infrequent, but highly emotive performances.


104 – History is full of people willing to die for memes they don’t understand and whose commandments they routinely disobey.


People also like memes that seem to help them manage their environment.


108 – This is often evoked, as in the evil eye – which intuitively could be looking at you.


109 – Memes have coherence that endures, even though they can be passed down so many ways and mutated. 


Where it is encoded and how transmitted can influence  the success of a meme.


110 – The Protestant revolution was one meme replacing another.  And, the anti-papal pamphlets did not work, the reworded eaily sung psalms worked.   And, they were sung in a crowd, this causes endorphins.


The printing of newspapers also made for Anderson’s ‘imagined communities.’


111 – The diffusion of memes used to be influenced by the physical movement of their carriers.  Buddhist memes were carried by Buddha to India.


112 – Social selection is slow, but meme selection can happen in a single generation. Social selection needs to be continually reinforced, when new.   And, this shows that formal instruction is not so important, fashion changes easily.


113 – There are always holdouts.  This makes for an S-Shaped logistic curve, wherein the change hits its peak. 


The Jesuit’s trips to Asia made few converts.  But the ones that are there have stuck due to close knit communities.


114 – This has led people to compare cultural memes to the spread of infectious diseases.  He doesn’t buy it.   Disease comes from a single carrier.  Meme displacement requires reinforcement from multiple sources.


115 – Memes may mutate a lot before they catch on.  He uses the rise of birth outside of marriage to illustrate slow change, acceptance and limits of meme spreads.   But, epidemiological terms add nothing to our understanding.


116 – Happenings are often overdetermined, so much favors reproduction that it invites more explanations than it needs.  Nationalism is his example herein.


117 – No one trait can be ‘packaged into a nation.’


118 – British people rallied to fight against Napoleon.  It was local community pressure, drums and marching through them, and the diffusion of Protestant memes against the French papists.  All these together = nationalism.


Sectionist theory has no ‘Asian mind’ or zeitgeist.  But that doesn’t mean talk of the ‘Western mind’ must be expunged.


119 – It does, though, require that this talk be supplemented with accurate reports of the distribution and ongoing reproduction of identifiable memes.


And, not all is identical in big memes, like the ‘western mind,’ just family resemblances.


120 – Getting the right ‘just so story’ is complicated by people belonging to multiple groups.


121 – This most easily done wherein there is one larger common meme and then sub-cultures.  You can see how they bubbled up to impact the common culture.


Greece is a good example. It was 100s of different poleis, passed down in coins, cults, dialects, etc.,


There was ongoing warfare, beyond what was necessary or productive.  He does not accept the lack-of-females argument.  Prestige went to warriors. Civic ceremonies and oaths upheld this. People paid homage to fallen soldiers.


122 – This declined with the rise of mercenaries. Honor in fighting was gone.


124 – You also must account for an absence of change. Rome rarely changed.


125 – One reason, there was no counter tradition.  Cicero’s ideal state was Rome.


126 – Mystery cults and such were not political.


127 – They conflicted over who would be the chief priest, but not doctrine.


128 – Heresies are losers by definition as they have not become orthodoxies.   If the parents and the society agree on beliefs, the kids will  likely get them too.


129 – He looks at the battle between iconoclasts and iconophiles. Iconophiles had a leg up due to Mary and Christ images being widespread.


130 – Christianity itself is a heresy that made it. So many thingshappened right to make it fly  - Constantine’s victory for one.


But the caring for the people who were not Christians also gained converts. The ritual of baptism helped. 


134 – This created a free rider problem.  But if one joined for every one that free rode, they were golden.


136 – Later colonial or imperial imposition helped.  


137 – Whatever they believed, puritans who did not violate the communities orders got great reciprocal help.   When strangers came, they joined churches for support and the churches, in turn, kept an eye on them.   This created trust and honesty.


139 - These did not lead to wealth.  But when economic opportunities arose, these behaviors did.  It required a willing environment to monetize the Protestant work   ethic.  This insight comes from the selective approach. It blends material and ideal.


In any culture that has gone from culture to society, the answer to the question, “What’s going on here?’ is meme-practice co-evolution.




Page 140


The iconic cultural selection is a visionary preacher with people learning and behaviors the environment favors.


The iconic social selection is an entrepreneur who brings wage labor to a sharecropper environment.


But, there is always some noise (ie changes that happen when these ideals interact with the real world over time). 


Like cultural selection, social selection is neutral between intentional and unintentional design. 


Constitutional choice provides examples of intentional designed adaptation.   These mutate due to politics and the environment. 


141 – With the transition from culture to social, some individual trial and error may have made an impact; but after institutions, once the behaviors and words describing them are in place, the selective pressure of the environment makes choices.


142 – Big men pull off changes in Polynesian chiefdoms.  But roles have limits. 


143 – All primitive peoples seem to have discovered the dangers of common-property tenure and to have developed measure to protect their resources.


Some people play, however, several institutional roles at the same time and the social world is full of messy social dyads.


144 – Trade unions punish dissenters. But inter system struggles are not always drivers of social evolution.  Societies with mad problems limp along.  And, for change to happen mutant practices must appear.


These then must be diffused across the relevant population.


145 – Sometimes this takes the shape of a convergent response to an inescapable selective pressure, like an army that must get organized or die.


When societies come, empires come.


146 – You then have peripheries.    And, whereas, societies can survive revolutionary class conflict, subversion of traditional hierarchies of status, and military defeat or civil war, empires cannot.


149 – Cultural selection of beliefs and attitudes can sometimes enhance both the acquiescence of the populations on the peripheries and the ruler’s efforts to that end.   But the cultural selection of memes (which are adopted via imitation and learning) has always to be clearly distinguished from the social selection of practices (which are imposed).


If you subjugate people and exploit them, it is hard to get a meme that makes them accept it.


150 – Empires are difficult due to the natural in-group / out-group distinction.


151 – the selectionist pressure help us see the inadequacy of the standard sociological vocabulary – feudalism, capitalism, absolutism, totalitarianism, and so on. 


People inveigh against the use of the word feudalism as too loose, but they still cling to it.


Historian’s usual questions about feudalism, over what feudalism is, (Marx’s progress out of slave production or Weber’s regression from nascent capitalism to a by stifling bureaucracy) don’t ask the right ‘just so questions.’ 


It is a story about diverse renegotiation in a shifting environment of institutional inequality.


153 – Slavery is not by any means a social universal, and where found it always exists alongside other economic, ideological and political relationships of domination.


155 – Indentured servants were tempting to exploit and they had (with free land) a temptation to run off.  And the supply ran low when Africans became cheap and plentiful.


157 – Northern denunciations of slavery’s brutality were no more going to drive slavery out than the South’s denunciation of the North’s exploitative labor policies.  It was biologically, socially and culturally in.  A war was necessary.


How did slavery get stopped in the Caribbean without a war?


158 – There was a memetic mutation in the Quakers.  They decided to exclude slaveholders from their meetings.  This was a social institutional response.


159 – This practice diffused among other evangelical groups.


Adam Smith thought slavery inefficient. But in Jamaica, the production of sugar was halved once the former slaves were fully free.


160 – The anti-slavery economists were believed because it fit the abolitionists’ agenda.


In Brazil, the planters lacked the means of coercion when there was a large movement to manumission zones – which blurred the ideological distinction lines between dark skinned slaves and free whites.


161 – It is because of the diversity of practices between slavery and other forms of domination, not just because slavery is a predetermined stage in a teleological progression out of ‘ancient’ through ‘feudal’ to ‘modern’ that slavery met different fates in Brazil and the US.


162 – It was roles becoming increasingly negotiable combined with a lack of means of coercion.


164 – In the post-Roman world the relations between the top and bottom roles were overwhelmingly social, not cultural.  In this environment, the drivers of meme – practice co-evolution were the practices, not the memes.


169 – In England the kings were acknowledged rulers, but  the unity was more ideological than either economic or political.   The splendor grew more than the power.


171 – By 1066 England was an old society.  But it was in constant flux. The roles were flexible. That is also why there was very limited upheaval along class lines.


Punctuated equilibrium or incremental mutations?  The discussion between biologists have been heated.  It is not so for sociologists who see (172) natural, cultural and social relations all proceeding at different speeds under different environmental conditions.


173 – Sociologists look at the persistence of roles that revolutionaries wish to overthrow.


174 – The French Revolution’s origins were over – determined.  Many items led to its happening.  The slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity spread.


175 – But, the French Revolution changed far less in economic, ideological or political institutions than its supporters had hoped.    Though status was never what it was again. Positions that happened by birth were opened up to others.


176 – Differential modes of address disappeared, priests and nuns now married, the calendar was reformed.  But the (177) depth of popular hostility to dechristianization, even in the absence of organized clerical leadership, is striking.


178 – Despite the importance of women in the events of the Revolution, they were not enfranchised until 1945.


Revolutionary memes turned out to have a much higher probability of reproduction than revolutionary practices.


180 – Many rituals bloomed in the French Revolution.  Many disappeared as soon as the revolution ended.  But the tricolor and the commemoration of the fall of the Bastille remained.


182 – Evolution never goes backwards. Successive generations of the carriers of the units of selection are never going to come increasingly to resemble their ancestors, biologically, culturally or socially.


183 – A society can suffer a large-scale collapse without losing its modes of production, persuasion or coercion being modified.


Rome collapsed once it could not longer raise sufficient funds to pay for its army and bureaucracy.   He looks at Easter Island’s collapse too.   Not all is upward and onward.


184 – It is possible that social evolution is prevented from following the path-dependent by a parasitical practice which reproduces itself at others’ expense.


The example is the selling of noble titles in pre-revolutionary France.


185 – By 1789 there were 70,000. 


186 – The fact that this was a waste of resources no more condemned it to end than did slavery.  The practice was still going on in 1866.


187 – No historian claims that the selling of offices made the French Revolution inevitable, but it is a textbook example of a parasitic practice.   


188 – Some do believe that history has a direction.  They could hardly fail to see agriculture give way to industrial society.  Herein we discuss the term ‘modernization.’   It got popular in the 2nd half of the 20th century. It has no explanatory value.


Some see it as a state of mind. 


189 – People who want to replace one practice with another are modernizers.


It makes no difference that there is no word in Greek corresponding to ‘modern,’ we cannot but doubt that Thucydides thinks of himself as a modern historian in a modern state.


Bayly said the aspiration to modern states spread through north Africa like bacillus in the early 19th century.  This is a ‘just so story’ of cultural selection.  But is it imitation or convergent social evolution.


190 – If there is any trend to be seen, it is globalization itself.  This means that autonomous social evolution itself has become a thing of the past.  Memes and practices can now go anywhere in the globe. [he is really not into HBD]



Page 192


To claim that from a neo-Darwinistic perspective there is no master narrative is to invite the charge that selection theory itself is a master narrative.


The difference is that there is no plot in the way of a good story, there is no plot and no conclusive ending or privileged vantage point.  No paeans to virtue.


193 – Selectionist stories are just stories of winners and losers.  But history is told by the winners and inevitably, such story telling provokes anti-stories that reverse the heroes and villains.


194 – The Eurocentric nature of 19th and 20th century sociologists is hard to rebut.  But they saw no African colonies on North America, “Islamic mosques replacing the cathedrals and churches of Italy.” Or “Chinese armies fighting for control of the territory of France.”


But, he claims, (in reference to the Industrial Revolution) “Those are just the places where those things happened to happen first.”


A geologist need not explain physical law to explain a plateau.  Neither should a sociologists need to invoke psychology when discussing a surge in upward mobility – when invoking an increase in non-manual to manual roles.


Once the ‘just so story’ has the most corroborating evidence, it is a candidate for becoming a ‘sooner or later’ story of inevitability. But the range of possible life forms is far from unlimited, so are the range of possible sequences wherein one succeeds the other.   


196 – People say the domestication of plants and animals was bound to happen.  But it wasn’t foreseeable, he claims.


The history of history writing can also be seen as an inevitable progression from folk myths to evidence based writing. But these are not mutually exclusive.  And selectionist methods do not put other ones out of business.   We can explain both institutional progress and what it feels like to be of such a time.


197 – But selectionist historians do disavow those who only deal in motives of particular individuals as the driving force of history. 


Another not okay method is wherein the historian / narrator illustrates a preconceived theme of cultural and social history without reference to the relevant comparisons to the same thing happening in other cultures.


198 – We do see similar institutions in diverse places and symphony orchestras could not have happened before singing more than elephants could have proceeded bacteria.


But which similar institutions are coming from the same pattern of evolution?


City – states were different from each other.


199 – It is no good to say Sparta and Florence were the same.  There are resemblances but there are differences too.  Sparta had no banking institutions like Florence.   And, furthermore, city states existed simultaneously with less developed groups.


200 – More interesting is that both groups had some (differing) level of “democracy.”  But this is not convergent, they were not both working towards an ultimate solution to the problem of politics. They were homologous in a sense.


But noting differences, we see that under similar environmental pressures, similar memes and practices, but differences and no teleology.


201 – Yet there are some ages, in the sense of somewhat cohesive periods, such as ‘the bronze age’ or ‘the Baroque’ age.   But to the sociologist, such categories are only helpful to the extent that they specify qualitative, population-level changes in shared beliefs or attitudes and in roles constitutive of different modes of production, persuasion or coercion.   But periodization is a matter of processes, not a date.


202 – This lingers in large scale periodization “ancient,’ ‘medieval,’ and ‘modern.’ 


In cultural evolution, the big transitions are first, the emergence of language and symbolism; second, the emergence of literacy.  In social evolution, the big transitions are, first, the emergence of the practices and roles constitutive of states; and second, the breakout from Malthus into demographic growth and increased food supply.


The term modern has no meaning.


The fallace of the elective affinity is seen in Jaspers’ “Axial Age.”  Zoroaster, Confucious, Buddha, the Hebrew Prophets and the Greek philosophers were not in a distinctive ‘age.’ 


203 – Their beliefs were not at all the same as each other.   They come from different places.  Putting them in an age is ‘neo-Hegelian’ not neo-Darwinian comparative sociology.  It is about his existential philosophy, not selective affinities in a world where distinctive cultures and societies evolved.   This not where memes outcompete each other, but appear by magic.


204 – You are modern if you think yourself modern and living in a ‘distinctive’ age if you think you are.  The Victorians thought of themselves as ‘Living in an age of improvement.’ Christians who think themselves living between the birth and the apocalypse are.   You can’t see yourself, however, as living in Jaspers’ ‘axial age’ or a

pre-renaissance’ age.


You know what you think.  But the academic knows why your experience is.   You may say why you vote.  But, sociologists know why your population votes the way it does.


206 – We are not chimps.  We cannot exclude thought.  But we should not dismiss status and other primate drives and institutions, along with cultural diffusions.


Historians cannot interrogate the dead.   Anthropologists need the perspective of their informants, but also that of development and selection.


210 – But anthropologists look for parallels in their society and the natives.  They unconsciously frame questions as such.  But the difficulties of presenting a culture from the inside is no reason to abandon the endeavor.  And, such ‘speech acts’ can explain behavior patterns.


211 – Geerz did thick descriptions wherein he put particular utterances and actions into background stories.   He dresses like this for a military parade.  But, whence did  the military parade originate?  Thick cultural explanations do not address this matter.


It is because of this confusion of purposes that Geertz can be singled out as he has by Tooby and Cosmides as the guilty party in the faulty notion that culture is the universal glue and explanatory variable that holds social sciences together.


212 – But comparative sociology needs both Geertz’ culture and Tooby and Cosmides’ evolutionary psych.








And, nowhere in Hellenic culture was there any concept of rights independent of the social order.



Page 213


There was a disenchantment, as Weber described, after the end of the Middle Ages.  But there is a further disenchantment too.   


214 - People had hoped that the end of the priests’ silliness would be replaced by a cheerful optimistic story about progress.  The dissembling of morality and teleology were yet to come.  


215 – Judgment day was not replaced by nihilism, but by moral science – psychology in the service of virtue.  Mill and even Hobbes fall in this camp. 


An irony of the ‘second disenchantment,’ is that technology makes our lives easier to control – as seen in actuaries and criminologists.


216 - But there are ever more variables we cannot predict and chance comes in.  We understand the underlying processes that made the species, culture, and society, but have no hope of predicting what they are going to become.


“No twenty-first-century sociologist talks any longer about ‘moral science’ any more than ‘laws of commerce’.”


People that saw Weber lecture left believing in moral duty.   Same for the socialist Beatrice Webb.


218 – It is an irony that cultural and moral relativism accompanied the abandonment of teleology.   Now we understand moral life is ‘in ceaseless flux.’


“In a post-Darwinian world, every code of morality is as much a locally adaptive variant of a shared cultural inheritance as any other.” Now we know, ala R. Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality, that our capacity for moral judgments is just a product of natural selection that enhances biological fitness.


219 – John Maynard Smith is the father of evolutionary game theory.  He knew of the misuses of Darwinism in support of racist ideologies and policies directed against sub-populations culturally stigmatized as unfit.


Darwin saw the ‘struggle for existence’ in all from plants to animals, but the author of this book  W. G. Runciman does not address its continuation.


220 – Human history is a continuance of biological evolution by other means.


Post modernism also resisted neo-Darwinian theory.  To empirical sociologists their work is no more relevant than Zeno’s paradox is to ballistics experts.


221 – Nietzsche, like Darwin, destabilized the old world.  He said we need a theory of power structures.  This book offers one.


222 – The sociology of knowledge (as post modernists say) are not in a better position to deliver truths about science than science does about the world.


Neither the disanalogies between genes and memes or practices nor the complexities of multi-level selection are reasons to deny that first cultural and then social selection are continuous with, and analogous but not reducible to, natural selection.


224 - On the last page of the book there is a chart that shows all the topics feeding back on each other:


Gene – meme co-evolution  is above cultural selection and natural selection.

Meme-practice co-evolution is above cultural selection and social selection.

And all of these are above gene practice co-evolution. 


Social selection is very new; cultural very old.  In this time, rates of mutation and extinction have accelerated.  The global world has caused a multitutde of new and unprecedented cultural and social forms which have reached their own locally optimal fitness peaks. 



In 100 years culture and society will be different from what it is today.  And, so will sociology.