Cultural and Biological Co-evolution

In modeling the dynamics of complex systems it is impossible to ignore the discontinuities and surprises that often characterize these systems, and the fact that they operate far from equilibrium in a state of constant adaptation to changing conditions (Rosser 1991, 1992; Holland and Miller 1991; Lines 1990; Kay 1991). The paradigm of evolution has been broadly applied to both ecological and economic systems (Boulding 1981; Arthur 1988; Lindgren 1991; Maxwell and Costanza 1993) as a way of formalizing understanding of adaptation and learning behaviors in non-equilibrium dynamic systems. The general evolutionary paradigm posits a mechanism for adaptation and learning in complex systems at any scale using three basic interacting processes: (1) information storage and transmission; (2) generation of new alternatives; and (3) selection of superior alternatives according to some performance criteria.

The evolutionary paradigm is different from the conventional optimization paradigm popular in economics in at least four important respects (Arthur 1988): (1) evolution is path dependent, meaning that the detailed history and dynamics of the system are important; (2) evolution can achieve multiple equilibria; (3) there is no guarantee that optimal efficiency or any other optimal performance will be achieved, due in part to path dependence and sensitivity to perturbations; and (4) “lock-in” (survival of the first rather than survival of the fittest) is possible under conditions of increasing returns. While, as Arthur (1988) notes “conventional economic theory is built largely on the assumption of diminishing returns on the margin (local negative feedbacks)” life itself can be characterized as a positive feedback, self-reinforcing, autocatalytic process (Kay 1991; Günther and Folke 1993) and we should expect increasing returns, lock-in, path dependence, multiple equilibria and sub-optimal efficiency to be the rule rather than the exception in economic and ecological systems.

Cultural vs. Genetic Evolution

In biological evolution, the information storage medium is the genes, the generation of new alternatives is by sexual recombination or genetic mutation, and selection is performed by nature according to a criteria of “fitness” based on reproductive success. The same process of change occurs in ecological, economic, and cultural systems, but the elements on which the process works are different. For example, in cultural evolution the storage medium is the culture (the oral tradition, books, film or other storage medium for passing on behavioral norms), the generation of new alternatives is through innovation by individual members or groups in the culture, and selection is again based on the reproductive success of the alternatives generated, but reproduction is carried out by the spread and copying of the behavior through the culture rather than biological reproduction. One may also talk of “economic” evolution, a subset of cultural evolution dealing with the generation, storage, and selection of alternative ways of producing things and allocating that which is produced. The field of “evolutionary economics” has grown up in the last decade or so based on these ideas (cf. Day and Groves 1975; Day 1989). Evolutionary theories in economics have already been successfully applied to problems of technical change, to the development of new institutions, and to the evolution of means of payment.

For large, slow-growing animals like humans, genetic evolution has a built-in bias towards the long-run. Changing the genetic structure of a species requires that characteristics (phenotypes) be selected and accumulated by differential reproductive success. Behaviors learned or acquired during the lifetime of an individual cannot be passed on genetically. Genetic evolution is therefore usually a relatively slow process requiring many generations to significantly alter a species' physical and biological characteristics.

Cultural evolution is potentially much faster. Technical change is perhaps the most important and fastest evolving cultural process. Learned behaviors that are successful, at least in the short term, can be almost immediately spread to other members of the culture and passed on in the oral, written, or video record. The increased speed of adaptation that this process allows has been largely responsible for homo sapiens' amazing success at appropriating the resources of the planet. Vitousek et al. (1986) estimate that humans now directly control from 25 to 40 % of the total primary production of the planet's biosphere, and this is beginning to have significant effects on the biosphere, including changes in global climate and in the planet's protective ozone shield.

Both the benefits and the costs of this rapid cultural evolution are potentially significant. Like a car that has increased speed, humans are in more danger of running off the road or over a cliff. Cultural evolution lacks the built-in long-run bias of genetic evolution and is susceptible to being led by its hyper-efficient short-run adaptability over a cliff into the abyss.

Another major difference between cultural and genetic evolution may serve as a countervailing bias, however. As Arrow (1962) has pointed out, cultural and economic evolution, unlike genetic evolution, can at least to some extent employ foresight. If society can see the cliff, perhaps it can be avoided.

While market forces drive adaptive mechanisms (Kaitala and Pohjola 1988), the systems that evolve are not necessarily optimal, so the question remains: What external influences are needed and when should they be applied in order to achieve an optimum economic system via evolutionary adaptation? The challenge faced by ecological economic systems modelers is to first apply the models to gain foresight, and to respond to and manage the system feedbacks in a way that helps avoid any foreseen cliffs (Berkes and Folke 1994). Devising policy instruments and identifying incentives that can translate this foresight into effective modifications of the short-run evolutionary dynamics is the challenge (Costanza 1987).

What is really needed is a coherent and consistent theory of genetic and cultural co-evolution. These two types of evolution interact with each other in complex and subtle ways, each determining and changing the landscape for the other.

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