sarahsilverman wrote:My impression that biological evolution can ALSO be circular has been strengthened by our discussion of cultural evolution. Biological evolution, (through the process of natural selection) is certainly a directional process, it does not necessarily mean that there is a progression from worse traits to better traits, or that the nature of a favourable trait is universal. So too with cultural evolution, the progress can be circular in a way. Culturally favourable traits are context dependent, and the complex matrix of environmental and cultural conditions at any given moment means that a trait which is favourable in one environment might not be at all in another.
An example of this: We had a postdoc in the philosophy department who received his PhD from Indiana University, but he was originally from Japan. He has since moved back to Japan for a professorship, and noted the following: Standing out from others in frowned up in Japanese culture. Early schooling (starting in kindergarten) in very important. So he and his wife visited numerous schools for their young daughter. However, it is unusual for a man to be involved in the process, so our former postdoc was looked at a bit askance. This doesn't bother him, but he worries about how it will affect how his daughter is treated.
So how are cultural traits/factors interacting here? Well, I think the gender rolls at play are at least mildly sexist. But the freedom to flout them is limited by the cultural expectation of conformity. Another culture may be equally (or more) sexist, but if it is less conformist, then the sexist cultural mores can be resisted. So sexist cultural attitudes can be reinforced by conformist attitudes