"Like Vikings in America"

1 minute read

Current Biology is running an interview with biologist and Mutants author Armand Leroi. I found this part interesting:

What important questions remain to be answered in your field? I can think of two. The first is: can we predict the course of organic evolution in the long term? The short term is easy: that's just the breeder's equation. But understanding the longue durée requires a theory that predicts what phenotypes mutation will produce. I am, of course, talking about 'the correlation of parts', 'developmental constraints', 'mutational bias', the 'integration of development with evolution', 'the real reason pigs can't fly' -- every generation since Darwin has considered, and failed to solve, the problem, though they've usually given it a new name.
The second question is rather like the first: can we predict the course of cultural evolution in the long term? (One might add: or even in the short term?) Darwin saw the analogy between cultural and organic evolution; theoretical population geneticists worked out the mathematics of the transmission of cultural traits years ago. Despite this, the field really didn't take off. I think it is taking off now. Culture is the New World of evolutionary science. To be sure, anthropologists discovered it long ago, but rather like Vikings in America, they never made much of what they found.

Well, I suppose nobody ever accused Kroeber of being Hari Seldon, but to anyone knowledgeable in the least about anthropology, this last remark seems a little dippy. Cultural evolutionist theories have come into fashion several times in the last 150 years. The reason that evolutionist ideas tend to go out of fashion is that they really fail to predict any particulars. Now, maybe somebody will find a way to do better, but I'd say any would-be Columbus has some pretty steep problems to overcome.


Leroi, A. 2007. Q & A. Curr Biol 17:R619-R620. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.006