Friday, 29 October 2010

Carl Zimmer & Paul Ehrlich discuss cultural evolution

Carl Zimmer & Paul Ehrlich discuss cultural evolution on

Here, Paul Ehrlich describes what he thinks is wrong with memetics.

To summarise, he thinks the main problem is that mutations are (more-or-less) random in genetic evolution - while they are directed in cultural evolution.

Alas, nobody ever thought that mutations were random in memetics.

That was never a tenent of meme theory in the first place.

The basic idea of memetics and memetic evolution is that copying with variation and differential reproductive success of culture results in evolution and cumulative adaptations.

Nobody ever claimed that the variations have to be made at random.

Alas, Paul has previously rather seriously incriminated himself in this area in print by saying:

Among humans, genes can only pass unidirectionally from one generation to the next (vertically), normally through intimate contact. But ideas (or “memes”) now regularly pass between individuals distant from each other in space and time, within generations, and even backwards through generations. Through mass media or the Internet, a single individual can influence millions of others within a very short period of time.

In fact cold virus genes pass between individuals of the same generation and from offspring to parent. Hepatatis B is a hardy virus that can exist on almost any surface for up to one month, and so can be transmitted by mail - and viruses can spread from one person to many - in what is commonly known as a pandemic. So, the while the relationship between the cultural and organic realms looks pretty close in these respects, it is clear that Paul is criticising memetics without being very familiar with its basic concepts.

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