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underlying genotypes in the social and cultural environments

Human social behavior arises, in a complex social context, from the psychological dispositions of individuals. Those psychological dispositions are themselves shaped not only by underlying genotypes, but also by the social and cultural environments in which people develop. Cultural transmission occurs in many animal species, but never to the extent or to the degree to which it is found in Homo sapiens. Human culture, moreover, is not obviously reducible to a complex system of processes in which single individuals affect others. Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection. Whether this happens in a wide variety of areas of human culture and domains or is relatively rare is something nobody can yet determine. But culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.

Let us imagine a model—call it the Big Model—of the causes of human social behavior. Natural selection would be a part of the story, but only a part. Work showing that particular social practices enhance reproductive success makes a welcome contribution, but more is needed if one is to draw conclusions about human practices as Darwinian adaptations. For if natural selection is at work, there must be a genetic basis for the psychological capacities and dispositions that underlie those practices. Moreover, the dispositions and the capacities are generated from the genetic basis in a particular environment or a range of environments, and it is important to understand how, in the pertinent environments, those genes give rise to other traits that might have quite different effects on reproductive success. And if genes, environments, and psychological characteristics are thoroughly entangled, it will be wrong to focus on forms of behavior that simply strike the investigator as potential adaptations. Moreover, the case analyzed must be one of those in which cultural transmission does not divert the outcome from that predicted by natural selection. (Even this is, strictly speaking, not enough, because it leaves unquestioned the assumption that the contribution of culture can be reduced to episodes in which items are transmitted from one individual to another.) All these lacks are difficult to make up in practice, because—as Darwin often lamented—“profound is our ignorance.”