Culture as an adaptive mechanism would be a dead-end if human psychology were no more than a copying machine that simply replicated knowledge with high fidelity. Environments change – fisheries get depleted, rivers run dry, enemies arrive, crops contract diseases, climates change. New opportunities also arise – perhaps the enemies bring new technologies, or new cultivars become possible, or population growth leads to colonizing new and different territories. Cultural information needs not just to be replicated but, with each generation, tested and challenged with some bits discarded and new ones added. Occasionally, only revolutionary change will do.I have some technical books on evolutionary game theory to read, some of which might go through a lot of careful algebra to achieve only modest improvements on arguments Armen Alchian or George Stigler offered in prose, three generations of economists ago. And if you're tempted to question why there's a lot of mathematical formalism to codify "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," understand that being able to identify the conditions under which imitation does not confer evolutionary advantage might start with precisely that codification.
You and I are the children of the successful. Our ancestors succeeded in assimilating and adapting and inventing cultural information so as to permit them to survive and reproduce – actually, to out-survive and out-reproduce the competition, thereby increasing the proportion of their own genetic representation in the local gene pool. Offspring resemble their parents, as Darwin taught, so presumably most of us have at least some of the culture-editing mechanisms that enabled our ancestors to become our ancestors. No doubt future researchers will produce massive tomes delineating these mechanisms and how they orchestrate the processes that turn a child into an adult member of his or her culture and society.
This essay focuses on only one of our culture-editing mechanisms, the tendency to pay preferential attention to, and learn preferentially from, the high in status, an idea originally suggested by the ethologist Michael R. A. Chance (1967; Chance and Larsen 1976; Barkow 1976). As young people, we seek as respected and prestigious a position in our local society as we can, and in doing so we in effect edit our culture. In adolescence we tend to become preoccupied by our own relative standing and that of the people and groups around us. This status consciousness may be considered reprehensible among some culturally egalitarian groups today, but how can we pay preferential attention to the high in status without status consciousness?
When we pay attention to someone whom we respect and admire or simply fear, a frequently one-way communication channel opens, and learning is enabled. In doing so, two processes begin: First, we are editing our cultures – we are editing out the behavior and knowledge of the low-in-status, the “losers,” the ignored, from the culture’s information pool. In their place we are replicating versions of the information associated with the high-in-status, the prestigious, the winners. Second, we are positioning ourselves to acquire prestige because those who are already respected must be doing something right! Of course, this is obviously an imperfect mechanism – our judgment of who is higher and who is lower may change, the knowledge we delete or insert may be irrelevant to the actual social standing of the individuals involved (let’s wear our hats the way the wealthy do, let’s not eat the traditional food of the poor, regardless of its nutritional characteristics): but during our long evolution this mechanism was probably reasonably effective. Learning our hunting and gathering skills from the people who were respected because they brought food back to the band, rather than learning the techniques of those of low status because they usually returned empty-handed, would have represented highly adaptive cultural editing. Learning our parenting skills from the woman respected because of her many healthy children would have been similarly adaptive. The techniques of the farmer who had higher yields than others, or the skills of the healer whose patients survived, could bring prestige to those who learned them.
The speed with which possible evolutionary stable mutations emerge and diffuse might be one dimension along which the conventional wisdom breaks down. That apppears to be one of Mr Barkow's arguments.
We often grow up wanting to be like them, and even when we consciously reject them, they influence us. Parents everywhere seem to have children who want to be film actors, or hip-hop artists, or Olympic gold medal winners.At heart, Mr Barkow might be writing about agglomeration economies. High-in-status in an isolated community, or the knowledge base of an isolated community, might be locally well-adapted, but make that isolated community larger, or allow the isolated community freer intercourse with other communities, and ideas can have more fruitful sex. That appears to be Mr Boudreaux's rebuttal.
Moving from the worlds of books and movies to the Internet has enormously increased such distributed communities while encouraging frequent and rapid electronic interaction among their residents. Sometimes large portions of a population share a media interest, as with athletics, but at other times we may dwell in and interact with an online community devoted to a single interest, say, growing garlic or agitating for better mental health services. Each online community develops its own prestige criteria and its own heroes, thereby facilitating the acquisition and editing of its own information pool.
Whether we are talking of books, films, television, or the Internet, modern mass media devalue the coin of local prestige. This devaluation results in what economists might term “opportunity cost.” Rather than wanting to be like one’s own parents, or like the successful baker down the block, or even the respected political leader, young people may want to be football heroes, or to produce videos for Youtube. They withdraw their attention from exemplars of their own local culture and may fail to acquire some of the skills and attitudes that made for success for previous generations and may be important in adapting to local environment. Everywhere, it seems, parents find themselves in the position of first generation immigrants whose children participate in a new and unfamiliar culture.
What exactly all this will mean for the future remains uncertain because we simply do not know enough about the mechanisms of cultural acquisition and editing. Are there processes that may make up at least in part for the malfunctioning of the learn-from-the-high-in-status bias?
Easy and widespread communication makes possible global markets that, in turn, justify the undertaking of large-scale production as well as of expensive upfront R&D efforts. Pfizer, for example, is more likely to invest a billion dollars developing a treatment for the Zika virus if it expects to be able to market its treatment to hundreds of millions of people worldwide than if it could market that treatment only to a few hundred thousand people in North America. And its ability to market globally rather than locally is in turn enhanced by easy, low-cost, and reliable global communication.The saecular challenge, however, might be in the tension between the benefits of specialization and mutual [inter]dependence and the benefits of like working with like. Both confer evolutionary advantages, the evolutionary advantages are different, and there's no self-evident optimal path.
Or consider modern peace and prosperity. These blessings are largely the consequences of trade and a worldwide division of labor that weave us all into one global economy. Each of us is today more dependent upon countless strangers than was true of even the most cosmopolitan man or woman of the past. This trade, specialization, and mutual dependence not only raise the costs of war – as Tom G. Palmer notes, “It’s bad business to slaughter your customers” – they also forge closer bonds of understanding across the globe. Yet without modern means of communication, such trade, specialization, and mutual dependence would be far less extensive and intensive. We would all be materially and culturally poorer as well as at greater risk of being victimized by nationalism-fueled belligerencies.
We are now experiencing a growth in class-based politics not seen since the New Deal. During the long period of generally sustained prosperity from the ’50s to 2007, class issues remained, but were increasingly subsumed by social issues—civil and gay rights, feminism, environment—that often cut across class lines. Democrats employed liberal social issues to build a wide-ranging coalition that spanned the ghettos and barrios as well as the elite neighborhoods of the big cities. Similarly, Republicans cobbled together their coalition by stressing conservative social ideas, free-market economics, and a focus on national defense; this cemented the country club wing with the culturally conservative suburban and exurban masses.The old orders enumerated in that passage are fracturing, something that Mr Kotkin contemplates in his essay. Although emergence will find a way, there are no guarantees that the transition from equilibrium to equilibrium will be pretty.