Won't you please unite? Darwinism, cultural evolution and kinds of synthesis

In A. Barahona, H.-J. Rheinberger & E. Suarez-Diaz (eds.), The Hereditary Hourglass: Genetics and Epigenetics, 1868-2000. Max Planck Insititute for the History of Science. pp. 111-125 (2010)
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The synthetic theory of evolution has gone stale and an expanding or (re-)widening of it towards a new synthesis has been announced. This time, development and culture are supposed to join the synthesis bandwagon. In this article, I distinguish between four kinds of synthesis that are involved when we extend the evolutionary synthesis towards culture: the integration of fields, the heuristic generation of interfields, the expansion of validity, and the creation of a common frame of discourse or ‘big-picture’. These kinds of synthesis are connected to epistemic values that are used to evaluate theories as well as analogies. A review of these epistemic values and the kinds of synthesis connected to them shall illustrate two points. First, that the discussions about culture and evolution exhibit an epistemic bias towards synthesis, even if, as history shows, synthesis and well as isolation can be fruitful epistemic strategies in science. The paper thus contains some critical notes on the value of synthesis in science. Second, reviewing the kinds of synthesis and values involved allows for a new perspective on the analogies involved in theories of cultural evolution. It is a perspective that makes the criteria with which these theories are usually evaluated explicit. With this we can compare the different standpoints people have taken on the usefulness of theories of cultural evolution at a higher level. Differences arise because of different epistemic values assumed.

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Maria Kronfeldner
Central European University


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