One of the most repeated criticism of the analogy between cultural and biological evolution is that inheritance in the former, but not in the latter, is Lamarckian. Things may be, to a certain extent, complicated (“Lamarckian” evolution might mean different things; the concept of soft inheritance, which might include “Lamarckian” forms, is no more a taboo in biology), but the nuts and bolts – which are, I think, what really matters for the analogy cultural/biological evolution – are not.
Here is the famous giraffes story: according to a Lamarckian explanation, the long neck of giraffes is due to the fact that, in each generation, individuals were stretching their necks to reach higher branches, making it longer and more robust. Their offspring would then inherit the longer necks of their parents: this is what is known as “inheritance of acquired characteristics”. We now know that this is not how biological inheritance works. Children do not inherit plastic surgery, body-builder muscles or, in the classic example, mutilations, from their parents (I discovered that the seminal experiment disproving Lamarckian inheritance involved, in fact, cutting the tails of 68 white mice – sorry internet – and checking that all of the 901 offspring had a normal tail). What about culture, then?
A famous quote of Stephen Jay Gould reads:
Human cultural evolution, in strong opposition to our biological history, is Lamarckian in character. What we learn in one generation, we transmit directly by teaching and writing. Acquired characters are inherited in technology and culture
This looks obvious, but I’ve never really got its precise meaning. My interpretation is that here Gould was mixing the cultural and biological levels of analysis. If we consider the biological individual as the unit of analysis in cultural evolution, “what we learn in one generation” can be the analogous of the stretched neck of the giraffe, but then cultural evolution is clearly not Lamarckian. Not differently from a stretched neck, reading skills or the ability to play the accordion are not inherited.
Sure, I can teach my daughter to read or to play the accordion, but in which sense this inheritance is Lamarckian? Now, the units of analysis are “reading” and “playing the accordion”, and “generations” are the instances of transmission. When “reading”, or any cultural trait, is transmitted from individual A to individual B, there is nothing particularly Lamarckian going on.
Even assuming that the trait has been modified, how one can decide whether, from the point of the view of the trait (our unit of analysis), the new character is “acquired” or not? The laptop I am using in this moment has various features that distinguish it from its predecessor (one is, say, the “Force Touch” trackpad). Is this Lamarckian inheritance or not? Tim Lewens, as well as Alex Mesoudi before him, clearly understands how the question of whether cultural inheritance is Lamarckian or Darwinian depends on how we consider the genotype/phenotype distinction in cultural evolution. In other world, only if one believes that the modification happens on the “phenotype”, and it is then inherited (remember the giraffes!), then can also define cultural evolution as Lamarckian.
I tend to share Lewens’ pessimism about the possibility of making sense of the genotype/phenotype distinction in cultural evolution (in the same time, I do not think this is too worrying, see here), but this would definitely bring me out of topic. The take home message here is: when someone complains that cultural evolution is Lamarckian, s/he is also assuming (i) a replicator-centred view of cultural evolution, in which (ii) it is possible to distinguish between the analogous of genotype and phenotype, and (iii) there are good reasons to conclude that modifications happen at the phenotype-analogous level. Or, more likely, just repeating something that looks obvious.
Acerbi, A., Mesoudi, A. (2015), If we are all cultural Darwinians what’s the fuss about? Clarifying recent disagreements in the field of cultural evolution, Biology & Philosophy, 30(4), 481-503
Gould, S. J. (1980), The Panda’s Thumb, Norton
Jablonka E., Lamb M. J. (2008), Soft inheritance: challenging the modern synthesis, Genetics and Molecular Biology, 31(2).
Kronfeldner, M. E. (2007), Is cultural evolution Lamarckian?, Biology & Philosophy, 22(4), 493-512
Lewens, T. (2015), Cultural Evolution, Oxford University Press
Mesoudi, A. (2011), Cultural Evolution, Chicago University Press