Some personal thoughts following the Lorentz Workshop “Probing the Foundations of Cultural Evolution”.

The first week of my PhD was rather unique. My thesis supervisor, Franjo Weissing, co-organized a workshop with three former students; Eva Boon, Lucas Molleman and Pieter van den Berg, on “Probing the Foundations of Cultural Evolution”. In the spirit of the Lorentz Center workshops, the aim was to bring together a diverse group of researchers, this time for a week-long discussion around the scope and limitations of “cultural evolutionary thinking”. Fresh into my new academic position, I arrived in Leiden with the baggage of only a few days spent crunching an intimidating pile of literature on the subject. The first week of my PhD, then, rapidly turned into quite an intensive divergent learning 1 experience.

In a very short amount of time, I delved into the diversity of approaches, research questions and methods of Cultural Evolution. I was enthusiastic to learn about topics as diverse as traditions in Drosophila, the co-evolution of cultural traits and learning-network structure, and the phylogenesis of non-canonical subject making in Germanic languages – to give you just a few examples. Most importantly, the workshop discussions deeply engaged me with a multitude of questions on the application of evolutionary thinking to the study of culture. How can experiments discover key mechanisms of cultural transmission? When can we infer cultural processes from cultural patterns? Should we adopt model pluralism 2? Which standard evolutionary assumptions may not hold when thinking about culture?

The workshop represented to me a fantastic example of good scientific practice: not only showing interesting results, but being self-reflective regarding methodological limits, gaps in our current knowledge, and potential conceptual issues. Still, a particular episode during the workshop suggested little room for dialogue between scholars from Science and the Humanities, and was in stark contrast with the overall openness to discussion I experienced the rest of the time.

Here is the episode that surprised me, along with some of my personal thoughts after it. Dionysus, as I shall call him for the sake of my argument, delivered a talk on the historian’s view of culture and cultural change. This was readily met with a strong critique from a member of the audience, Apollo, who built his reply upon the lack of “scientific rigour” and quantitative arguments in Dionysus’ approach. This heated exchange between two scholars suggested the existence of a two-sided divide in academia, a “Two Cultures” scenario much alike that depicted by C. P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture 3. In Snow’s view, scholars from Science and the Humanities had come to regard each other with mutual suspicion and little communication as a result of the very differences embedded into their respective “cultures” and research practices. The “Two Cultures” clash during the workshop seemed to urge me (and, possibly, other members of the audience) to pick one side: Apollo or Dionysus? Scientific rigour or lack thereof? Order or chaos? Light or darkness? And so on and so forth…

I am exaggerating. But, while trying to find a reason for this uneasy situation, I occasionally found myself considering what Stephen Jay Gould identified as the “trick and trope” of thinking in terms of two opposing sides in academia; and namely, one’s tendency to distort the opponents’ views into absurd extremes, to discredit or even ridicule them4. I suspect that arguments based on a “trick and trope” strategy often serve to draw a demarcation line between Science and the Humanities, and especially a hard split between quantitative scientific methods and other possibly legitimate ways in which we make sense of the world. In doing so, “trick and trope” arguments reproduce, in my opinion, the dubious belief of a fierce rivalry between two superficially-sketched versions of Realism and Relativism. Apollo and Dionysus, precisely. Scientific rigour and quantitative arguments on the one side, chaos and socio-cultural content on the other. It would seem to follow that truth could only stay with the former, while the latter inhabits a chaotic world of relative statements.

A good example of a “trick and trope” argument is that of the Sokal paper5 and of its large press coverage, which represents one of the most emblematic cases of the so-called “Science Wars”. By getting his hoax paper published in the Social Text, Sokal intended to discredit cultural theorists’ views on scientific knowledge based on their ignorance of rigorous mathematical and quantitative arguments - instead of eventually disproving them by critical and clear argumentation. Similarly, in the clash between Apollo and Dionysus, the reference to quantitative methods first served in identifying a key “cultural” difference between the two. In a “trick and trope” manner, then, the lack of quantitative arguments in Dionysus’ approach seemed to also diminish the “scientific rigour” of his talk.

The preoccupation of Sokal and others during the “Science Wars” was with “Postmodern thinking” aiming to delegitimize Science, especially by contending that scientific knowledge is informed by socio-cultural factors. This reliance on social construction was seen as making all facts just a matter of opinion, up to the point where, in contemporary debates around “post-truth” politics, phenomena such as fake news and climate change denial could also be seen as consequences of the extreme relativism of late XX century Postmodernism (for two quite different perspectives on this, see the opinions of Dennett6 and Zalamea7). Some literary criticism went indeed too far in questioning the legitimacy of scientific discoveries - possibly by displaying a wide variety of “trick and trope” arguments. However, generalizations equating “Postmodern thinking” with a plain refusal for fact-checking are, in my opinion, reductive to say the least. At the same time, I find the refusal of socio-cultural influences on scientific knowledge a form of naive realism, inattentive to the working of the scientific community and of the society it is embedded in. 

More truth possibly lies somewhere in between opposing realist and relativist extremes, in between the progressive (and cumulative) nature of scientific discoveries and their historical and socially-embedded development. It is possible that the “Science Wars”, by portraying a fierce opposition between two extremes, left quite a deep mark on the feelings and attitudes of academic researchers up until today. In particular, the recurrent use of “trick and trope” arguments makes me think that establishing a dialogue on even grounds is often considered not possible, or even worthy of attempt. This is a pity, since much can be learned by taking into consideration different methodological frameworks and modes of knowing. The field of Cultural Evolution, in this sense, already presents an incredible diversity of approaches, as I had the opportunity to appreciate during the Lorentz workshop. These can, in my opinion, hardly be reduced to simply representing a more quantitative understanding of cultural phenomena, with respect to research in the Humanities. Rather, the application, scope and usefulness of quantitative methods seems to vary quite a lot depending on the research. 

Maybe this openness to a variety of practices indicates that the field of Cultural Evolution can contribute to a more constructive interchange with the Humanities, highlighting the diversity of concepts and methods in a positive way. This may also help us understand and appreciate how to build truly trans-disciplinary approaches, where discussion across disciplinary boundaries can become source of novel insight. I believe the true highlight of this Lorentz workshop was in the self-reflective effort of a research community on its own work and methodologies. I find this a much better indicator of “scientific rigour” than the application of any methodology per se. From this perspective, there may not be, in the end, such big a priori differences between Science and the Humanities.

Footnotes

1 Divergent learning or thinking: to generate many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time. It involves breaking a topic down into its various component parts in order to gain insight about the various aspects of the topic (from faculty.washington.edu/ezent/imdt.htm)

2 Model pluralism: to adopt a diversity of theoretical approaches and modelling techniques when tackling a certain research question (e. g., dynamic equations and agent-based simulations; but also, various implementations of agent-based models, using different programming languages or styles).

3 Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

4 Gould, S. J. The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003 (pp. 95-104).

5 Sokal, A. D. Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text. 1996 (46/47): 217-252.

6 Daniel Dennett: “I begrudge every hour I have spent worrying about politics” (The Guardian, 02/2017): https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/12/daniel-dennett-politics-bacteria-bach-back-dawkins-trump-interview

7 Politics of math in the age of post-truth, an inteview with Fernando Zalamea (&&& Platform, 01/2019): http://tripleampersand.org/politics-math-age-post-truth-interview-fernando-zalamea/