Evolution, Psychology, and a Conflict Theory of Culture

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Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net – 2009. 7(2): 208-233

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Original Article

Evolution, Psychology, and a Conflict Theory of Culture
Kevin MacDonald, Department of Psychology, California State University – Long Beach, Long Beach, CA, USA. Email: kmacd@csulb.edu (Corresponding author).

Abstract: This article develops an evolutionary theory of conflict over the construction of culture that is informed by current knowledge of psychological mechanisms. Psychological mechanisms important for the production of culture include (1) general intelligence (including the ability to engender hypothetical scenarios and means-end reasoning necessary for constructing tools and other exemplars of technology); (2) explicit processing mechanisms (e.g., symbolic representations of the world). Explicit processing allows humans to regulate modular mechanisms in accordance with culturally constructed norms and culturally constructed cost/benefit payoff schedules. It also enables active attempts to construct culture in accordance with explicit perceptions of possible costs and benefits. Because people have different construals of the costs and benefits of particular forms of culture, there is conflict over the construction of culture. Social controls and ideologies are introduced as general cultural categories that are enabled by explicit processing and which are able to regulate and motivate behavior within particular historical contexts, at times in ways that conflict with evolved predispositions. Ideologies are often intimately intertwined with various social controls but are logically and psychologically independent from social controls. Ideologies typically rationalize extant social controls but they also benefit from the power of social controls to enforce ideological conformity in schools or in religious institutions. Because of the control of explicit processing over behavior, this theory predicts that conflicts over culture will often be intense. Discussion deals with the implications of this model for group selection, cultural transmission, gene-culture co-evolution, and the various types of conflicts of interest apparent in conflicts over the construction of culture. Keywords: evolution, culture, explicit processing, ideology, social controls. ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯

Conflict theory of culture Introduction A major goal of this article is to argue for a conflict theory of some aspects of human culture. Theories of culture have focused on showing the conditions under which certain norms could have evolved (e.g., a reciprocity norm, Boyd and Richerson, 1988, or a norm of altruistic punishment, Boyd, Gintis, Bowles, and Richerson, 2003). Or they have stressed that random processes of imitation can give rise to some patterns of culture (Bentley, Hahn, and Shennan, 2004; Bentley, Lipo, Herzog, and Hahn, 2007; Shennan, 2006). Here the focus is on within-generation conflicts of interest over the construction of culture as it relates to the control of human behavior in economically advanced societies. This perspective does not require any additional evolvability theory beyond previous work — in particular, Boyd and Richerson’s (1992) article showing that with punishment anything can evolve. The emphasis on conflict within societies is certainly in keeping with general evolutionary considerations, since, in the absence of genetic identity, all organisms have conflicts of interest. Therefore, it is not surprising that people may have conflicts of interest over the construction of culture. More importantly for the present article is that humans have perceived conflicts of interest over the construction of culture made possible by explicit processing. It is then important to determine whether and to what extent the outcome of cultural conflict may affect biological fitness. This perspective also leads to a complex view of the relationship between...
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