Wednesday, July 30, 2008

WNYC Soundbite: Why A Cultural Darwin Is Needed

I found this to be pretty engaging. Basically talks about the need for someone to come along and do for the study of culture what Darwin did for the study of genetics. It then starts to go off into population growth and the like, but its still worth a listen. The person being interviewed is Paul Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University.

There are some points brought up here that I feel would be great for discussion. One of them would be the premise of cultural evolution to begin with. As Ehrlish said, culture in many ways is always being re-written, yet there are certain patterns in culture that have a tendency to remain unwavering. And you can't analyze one culture on its own - sooner or later you'll have to observe its interaction with other cultures around it. All of which may lead a person down an endless line of research.

Which is why I just love social sciences.

Another part I found to be really good is that it brings up culture and the environment's relationship with one another. I personally feel that they're highly interconnected. Especially ancient cultures that have long since ran their course. For example, I'm right now re-reading The Odyssey by Homer and in it you can see how much the location of where their world is centered around plays a role in their culture. You have deities for local bodies of water, the material their weaponry was crafted from, etc.

The audio clip can serve as a nice stepping stone for going deeper into the the topics it (sadly) touched upon very quickly. With that said, what do you guys think about what Ehrlish brought up?


  1. I get the feeling you'd enjoy the book "Guns, Germs and Steel".

    Ehrlich's a bit depressing (though he makes some valid points). I'm not sure that there can be a cultural Darwin. Ehrlich himself says that we don't have enough genes to control our behavior/culture, so whatever there is to discover is highly complex and probably highly decentralized.

    Even if we do discover enough about cultural evolution to make accurate predictive models of it, his implication is that students of cultural evolution would need to move rapidly from study to action. He sees human culture as diseased because it is evolving without sufficient consideration of the environment that sustains it. But I'm wondering what the "cure" would be like. And who would administer it?

  2. Along those lines, check out out Susan Blackmore's TED talk on Memes and Temes Seems a bit more hopeful than Ehrlich--though wary of the dangers that await us.

  3. @ oops - Thanks for the book link. Now that you bring it up, that "cure" does kind of worries me. The great thing about culture is that its so unpredictable and there may be way too much to lose, should too much understanding be gained. But at the same time, thats part of the allure - to study something that can never be fully explained. Well, at least it is to me.

    @teddyb109 - That was a great one. I did enjoy the way she presented herself more than Ehrlich's. Plus she stayed focus on a central theme rather than hoping around too much.

    Infact, I liked that talk so much that I ended up watching a few more. That site is very engrossing.

  4. how did you put the hear it now on your blog....

  5. I just took the code off the site and posted it in this post. Some sites are nice that way...