Divergence between Cultural Success and Reproductive Fitness in Preindustrial Cities

Essay Excerpt

The central tenet of sociobiology is that individuals act to maximize their genetic success, that is, they optimize their genetic contribution to future generations. Any practice that mitigates or penalizes one's genetic success relative to other unrelated individuals is, sociobiology predicts, eventually supplanted through natural selection as those individuals with higher reproductive fitness predominate. My purpose in the present paper is to document empirically that a pattern which is the reverse of this occurred in preindustrial cities. Specifically, preindustrial cities seriously penalized the reproductive fitness of city-dwellers relative to those persons who continued to live in country or rural areas. Indeed, large preindustrial cities tended to be population sinks; the death rate exceeded the birth rate and the city as a whole was dependent on continual inmigration from rural areas for its demographic survival. While sociobiology predicts that such genetically costly living practices should die out, history shows overwhelmingly that such urban living not only persisted but became increasingly preponderant, despite the fact that the high biological costs of urban living were not mitigated until at least the rise of modern medicine in the mid-19th century. Further, the data strongly suggest that the genetic cost of urban living was not balanced by any reproductive benefits accruing to the close biogenetic kin of urban dwellers, that is, it cannot be explained on the basis of inclusive fitness.

In short, I shall document that the rise, persistence, and sociocultural preponderance of preindustrial cities runs counter to sociobiological postulates. Instead, an approach is needed that recognizes the proliferation and transmission of symbols, beliefs, and corresponding behaviors independent of the genetic success of the persons who disseminate them. That symbols propagate themselves extragenetically has been known at least since the work of Leslie White (1949). However, the relationship between genetic and cultural success has only been recently analyzed in a systematic fashion, through the notion of dual inheritance. (Knauft, 95)

About the Author

Dr. Bruce M. Knauf, Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. Dr. Knauft's research combines politico-economic and cultural analysis across different world areas. He is particularly interested in issues of collective and individual subjectivity in relation to structures of social inequality and political domination or disempowerment, both historically and in the present.

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