“Evolutionary Cultural Ecology” (ECE)—Let’s Look at Its Connection to Bowlbian Attachment Theory

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Occasionally I’ll write a post that mainly serves my research needs: To summarize and record information concerning a particular topic. This is one such post. In my last post I looked at the edited volume entitled Traditions of Systems Theory—Major Figures and Contemporary Developments, edited by Darrell Arnold (2014). Chapter fourteen in Traditions of Systems Theory is entitled A Brief Outline of Evolutionary Cultural Ecology (ECE) by Peter Finke. I particularly enjoyed Finke’s chapter mainly because it seemed as if ECE dovetails nicely with Bowlby’s theory of attachment. In addition, I had never heard of ECE before, so the topic was new to me. In this post I’d like to simply pull a few bullet points from Finke’s chapter on ECE, and to make a few connections between ECE and Bowlbian attachment theory. Let’s jump in.

Finke starts his chapter thus: “Evolutionary Cultural Ecology (ECE) is a new cultural theory based on recent transdisciplinary studies in evolutionary theory and in the structure and functions of ecosystems.” Right off the bat here are three connections back to Bowlby’s theory: Attachment theory has a focus on…

  1. transdisciplinary studies
  2. evolution theory
  3. ecosystems

Many may not know but John Bowlby started out as a naturalist, which, today, would go by the name geologist. Many may not know but Charles Darwin started out as a naturalist/geologist and Darwin’s geological studies are still discussed today. I think one reason Bowlby had a soft spot for Darwin’s work was this shared experience of moving from geology to psychology. As stated in the introduction to part III of Traditions of Systems Theory, “Systems theories … are found … throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not only in the work of Adam Smith, but also in the theories of Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx, as well as Claude Bernard, Walter Bradford Cannon, and James J. Gibson.” It was systems theory and thinking that allowed Darwin to pull biological insights together into a coherent theory now known as evolution. In my opinion, Bowlby used systems theory and thinking to pull together psychological insights into a coherent theory now known as attachment.

Here are the three fundamental convictions of ECE (quoting Finke). I’ll insert my editorial comments underneath each:

1) The world consists of two realms, the realm of nature and the realm of culture. There is no third (emphasis in original). Nature is older, culture younger. Culture has developed out of nature by evolutionary processes; and since this development has begun, culture has accompanied and influenced nature, but it does not replace it.

Comment: In his trilogy on attachment, Bowlby used the idea of Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). In the first volume of his trilogy, Bowlby writes the following in chapter four Man’s Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness: “[W]hen we come to consider with what instinctive behaviour … humans may be endowed, a first task to consider is the nature of the environment within they are adapted to operate…” (emphasis in original). Here we get this sense that Bowlby very much is bridging between the first realm—nature—and the second realm—culture. Attachment researcher Allan Schore wrote an article back in 2012 entitled Bowlby’s “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness.” Schore warns: “American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral ‘environment of evolutionary adptedness.’ ” So here Schore is specifically using Evolutionary Cultural Ecology concepts.

2) The evolution of culture has produced a second level of manifold varieties, mirroring the natural diversity that was produced by the earlier evolution of nature (emphasis in original). … Generally, cultures resemble ecosystems functionally and structurally for evolutionary reasons; this is the central hypothesis.

Comment: I enjoyed Finke’s chapter on Evolutionary Cultural Ecology because it seems to fly in the face of postmodern thinking. Postmodern thinking wishes to liberate us from not only biology in specific but also evolution in general. In his 2003 book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker points out that the postmodern Blank Slate movement is centrally about denying the existence of any innate behavioral system such as attachment, or sex, or even caregiving(receiving). The Blank Slate movement sees no connection between the realm of nature and the realm of culture. This movement views humans as being born a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) upon which is written cultural norms, information, and practices. Now, in fairness to the Blank Slate movement, they’re trying to move society past anything smacking of biological determinism, which, as some feminists correctly point out, has been used to oppress women, children, and persons of color. However, calling for a wholesale break between nature and culture seems like a call to throw the baby out with the bath water. In my opinion, Bowlby would probably agree that nature and culture are inextricably intertwined, which is why ECE and Bowlby’s theory fit together so well.

3) Culture is neither fully restricted to the human sphere, nor is it identical with the good, the true, and the beautiful (emphasis in original). The latter is only a small part of culture; and our actions fail to live up to these ideals.

Comment: In essence Finke is suggesting that culture can be seen in other areas outside of the human realm, say, in the realm of animals. This fits with Bowlby’s focus on ethology or animal studies. Bowlby used animal studies as part of the foundation for his theory of attachment. Attachment theory then connects the animal realm with the human realm. And for many—those who feel that humans should lord over animals and the natural environment—this animal–human connection poses a threat. I’m not sure this is their main aim but by proposing that humans are blank slates, the Blank Slate movement also seeks to break the animal–human connection. To them it is of little value that higher order animals—horses, dogs, elephants, etc.—have innate behavioral systems like attachment (and, as a result, form attachment bonds) because humans are not animals in any way, shape, or form.

Finke gives us the following “bottom line” concerning ECE:

From the point of view of ECE, there is no reasonable alternative to an evolutionary explanation of our world. And we have to thoroughly study the beginning of the evolutionary process because that beginning is likely to have left lasting traces in the systems generated in the course of that development.

Again, I think Bowlby’s work fits with an ECE point of view as evidenced by his focus on the aforementioned Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. Finke continues thus:

In the strict sense the term “cultural evolution” refers to the process that took place during the evolution of life, which eventually led to the addition of the new dimension of psychic life to the older, physical life. It entails the emergence of new species, the systemic tools that are able to influence behavior (e.g., semiotic systems), and the emergence of humans and their language and culture.

In his 1998 book entitled Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, evolution scientist Robin Dunbar suggests that the grooming behavior of animals formed the foundation upon which rests human language. Dunbar goes on to suggest that grooming behavior is closely associated with the caregiving(receiving) behavioral system that is in turn closely associated with attachment behavior. According to Dunbar’s research, animals could “abstract out” the actual touch of grooming by using the grooming of auditory calls and sounds. Finke puts it thus: “The cognitive faculties allow more and more abstarct thinking, which replaces the concrete objects observed by the senses with signs handled by thought.” It is no wonder that when an infant feels threatened he or she calls out, reaches out. My read of Dunbar’s book suggests that the grooming of animals—both through touch and calls—formed the foundation upon which human language rests. And grooming touch and calls are part and parcel of the attachment behavioral system.

Finke seems to agree that animal behavior and culture contributed much to the same in humans. “Long before man entered the stage,” writes Finke, “many animals appeared that were endowed with certain different but well-defined cognitive abilities.” He continues, “Therefore, they already needed the substantially adequate psychic extensions of their physical environment that had developed with them in the process of coevolution.” Finke uses the term “protoculture” to describe the cultural environment that animals enjoyed. According to Finke, “such protocultures are the first evolutionary experiments dealing with the construction of useful psychic habitats, many of which have proved to be very successful and can be observed up to the present.” When you think about it, this makes intuitive sense: If animals were not able to develop adequate psychic extensions, it would have been very hard if not impossible for humans. “Humans still use many nonverbal skills [like touch and calls] to structure their cultures that are akin to those prehuman achievements,” reveals Finke, “but the emergence of language has provided us with an important new means for cultural advancement.” All this to say that in my opinion John Bowlby valued the protocultures of animals (as evidenced by his extensive use of ethology) and they taught him much as he put together his theory of attachment.

Allow me to end with Finke’s take on language, a take that seems to dovetail nicely with Dunbar’s observations mentioned above. Finke states: “Language certainly is the most important innovation in the process of cultural evolution. Modern linguistics supports the view that it is not only a refinement of some recent system of animal communication but also a newly generated system adapted and restricted to the powers of the human brain.” Bowlbian attachment theory holds that it is through early safe and secure attachment relationships that the protolanguage systems of the infant are given form within the language systems of culture. This may in part explain why there is such a high correlation between the Strange Situation Assessment (which in essence evaluates the protolanguage system between mother and toddler) and the Adult Attachment Interview (which evaluates attachment functioning in adults through linguistic analysis). As Finke puts it, “Language links the natural with the cultural sphere in a chronological development, and its structure mirrors the basic conservative tendency of evolution.” Here’s how Finke characterizes this linking process:

  • beginning with instincts and rituals
  • progressing through animals and man
  • to dogmas in the state, society, and church
  • to norms like orders and decrees
  • to laws in the legal order
  • to traffic rules and rules for many games
  • to the directions given by composers or novelists
  • to usages, styles, and fashions
  • to advice, rules of behavior, and “etiquette”
  • to purposes, and loose recommendations
  • and, finally, inspiration and fancies of the moment

It’s all on a linked continuum. This tends to agree with philosopher John Searle’s position that all abstractions are abstractions from the natural world. According to Searle, we would not have money unless there were once physical boundaries of some sort in the natural world. (See Searle’s book The Construction of Social Reality.) [1]

Hopefully the above has given you a taste for Evolutionary Cultural Ecology. In addition, I hope I have pointed out in a few places where ECE and Bowlbian attachment theory dovetail nicely. Again, this is my first exposure to ECE but in my opinion ECE may be able to deliver a breath of fresh air to Bowlbian attachment theory.


[1] The US spends so much money on its military in large part because it is defending the physical boundaries upon which abstractions like money rest. As Searle tells us, money would not work as an abstraction unless there was a willingness to defend the physical underpinnings of money. I would suggest that the financial collapse of 2008 left a bad psychic taste in our mouths because it pointed out how easily the abstraction of money could be pulled from its physical moorings. Maybe we will learn this lesson many times over as the emergence of globalization and the digital age continues unabated. Oh, by the way, I have some digital beachfront property in the virtual world of Second Life I’d like to interest you in. Don’t laugh; virtual properties are selling for tens of thousands of dollars (or maybe bitcoins).