Darwinizing culture: the status of cultural evolutionary theory as a science

Summary

The last couple of decades has witnessed a surge of attempts to Darwinize the cultural sciences. By applying biological theories and tools to cultural phenomena (e.g., cultural diversity, cultural revolutions), cultural evolutionists purport to make the study of culture a more progressive and more rigorous enterprise. Although their work has caught on so rapidly, and although it has faced several in principle objections, it hasn't yet been subjected to thorough methodological criticism. In that light, exploiting the tools provided by the philosophy of science, the current programme aims to answer the following question: To what extent can we justify trust in methods devised for understanding biological phenomena, if these are applied to the realm of culture?
The programme is truly timely, since cultural evolutionary theory currently attracts an enormous amount of attention, both in terms of exposure and funding. Moreover, critical analysis of cultural evolutionary models and methods enables resolving several outstanding issues in the philosophy of science (related, e.g., to modelling and historical explanation). Finally, the programme sheds new light on work in evolutionary economics and innovation studies, and makes its outcomes relevant for non-academic audiences.
Methodologically, the programme is innovative in being non-partisan, since proceeding by way of internal critique, and in working bottom-up. In particular, it takes full advantage of a by philosophers much-discussed but underutilized tool, namely robustness analysis. That is, robustness analyses are performed to assess the extent to which the purported successes of cultural evolutionary theory are attributable to rather than independent from the simplifying assumptions it makes. The outcomes of these analyses thus offer an excellent basis for judging the amount of trust to be placed in this Darwinian inquiry of culture.

Products

Scientific article

Publical information

  • M Collard, K Vaesen(2015): Demography, risk and the explanation of major transitions in cultural evolution during the Pleistocene
  • K Vaesen(2015): No strength in numbers after all
  • A Acerbi(2015): If we are all cultural darwinians what is the fuss about? Attraction Versus Selection in Cultural Evolution
  • A Acerbi(2016): Review of Tim Lewens, Cultural Evolution: Conceptual Challenges
  • A Acerbi(2017): Can cultural attraction get from theory to predictions?
  • K Vaesen, J Katzav(2017): Ideological biases and their effects on the course of 20th-Century Anglo-American philosophy

Details

Project number

276-20-021

Main applicant

Dr. K. Vaesen

Affiliated with

Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Faculteit Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, Philosophy & Ethics (Phil&Ethics)

Team members

A. Acerbi, E. Boon, Dr. K. Vaesen

Duration

15/12/2014 to 15/12/2019