Is cultural evolution even real?

By evolution, I mean a substrate neutral process of variation, selection, and reproduction applicable to all sorts of populations of things. These populations could be biological, cultural norms, computer programs, or electrical circuits.

It can be useful to think of the evolution of cultural norms, computer programs, or electrical circuits as analogs of biological evolution, but they are only analogs. The fact that there are important differences between the evolution of biology, cultural norms, computer programs, and electrical circuits is irrelevant to the utility of using evolutionary models.

The important question about understanding enforced moral standards as the products of evolutionary processes is utility, “Does this understanding produce culturally useful results that otherwise might be hidden?” I think that answer is a strong “Yes”.

I read once that “A scientific theory is not a fact, but explains millions of facts”. It seems to me that “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral … and always have been” represents a theory that explains millions of facts about enforced moral standards.

First, it explains why enforced moral standards have so diverse, contradictory (women are or are not required to be submissive to men, homosexuality is or is not immoral), and bizarre (male and female circumcision is morally required and eating shrimp or pigs is immoral). Knowing these enforced moral standards exist because they increase, or increased in the past, the benefits of cooperation in groups enables us to rank them in terms of present effectiveness and throw onto the trash heap of history those that are less effective in increasing those benefits. “Equality under rule of law” and Individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as a matter of empirical historical fact, trump imperative male and female circumcision and food prohibitions. See explanatory power for moral facts and puzzles about morality.

Second, but more importantly, understanding enforced moral standards as the products of evolutionary processes provides a rational justification for, almost always, accepting the burdens of acting morally even when, in the moment of decision, we expect doing so will not be in our best interests.

Understanding enforced cultural as the products of cultural evolutionary processes of variation, selection, and reproduction has been criticized due to the fuzzy nature of these processes compared to biological evolution. However as argued in “Could it be wrong or irrelevant?” this fuzziness does not appear to have limited cultural evolution’s explanatory power or utility, for example its product Evolutionary Morality. Similarly, Darwin’s lack of understanding of genes as units of selection and variation did not mean biological evolution lacked explanatory power and utility prior to the discover of genes.

The picture shows a very compact antenna designed by NASA for a satellite using evolutionary methods of variation, selection, and reproduction. “The AI software examined millions of potential antenna designs before settling on a final one,” said project lead Jason Lohn, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley. “Through a process patterned after Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest,’ the strongest designs survive and the less capable do not.”

Evolution is a substrate neutral process. Cultural evolution shows that the “strongest design” for both human biology and enforced moral standards is a combination of altruism that increases the benefits of cooperation in groups and punishment for people who unfairly take advantage of other people’s altruism.

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