Sunday, 15 May 2011

Response to Peter Richerson

A few comments on Peter Richerson's recent article: "Culture Is an ACTIVE Part of Biology". To start with a quote:

The specific idea that cultural variation can respond directly to selection, and then influence genes by the Baldwin Effect, is harder for many people to swallow. I reiterate that entertaining this idea is just to walk down Darwin’s straight and narrow path. It all boils down to heritable variation for fitness. Richard Dawkins followed this path in the Selfish Gene where he introduced the concept of memes. One of the problems with the meme concept as it evolved is that users of the term focused far too heavily on the selfish potential of memes. But I think it is near to undeniable that cultural variants are sometimes selected to become selfish patIthogens along the lines that Dawkins suggested.

Thumbs up to Richerson for endorsing memes!

It is true that meme enthusiasts typically focus on the down-side of memes. There is a reason for that. When meme-interests coincide with DNA-gene interests, it is not easy to tease them apart. So, to see where memes and DNA-genes differ, one must look for cases where there are fitness conflicts - where the two selective forces pull in different directions.

But then:

I don’t much care for the term “meme” for the same reason that Joe dislikes it. It implies a close analogy between genes and cultural variants.

Yes - there is a "close" relationship between genes and "cultural variants" - a.k.a. memes - for some value of "close". There are many similarities.

It also tends to imply that an inheritance system has to be quite gene-like to count as an entity that can behave in Darwinian ways. None of these things is necessarily true (Henrich et al., 2008).

"an inheritance system has to be quite gene-like to count as an entity that can behave in Darwinian ways" seems to be vague. The Henrich reference says:

Memeticists like Blackmore (1999) and Aunger (2002) believe cultural representations, or as they prefer, memes must be particulate for cumulative cultural change to occur.

Sue explicitly denies holding such a position in her review of Richerson's book Not By Genes Alone. Here's what she says:

The population approach, they say, does not imply that cultural evolution is analogous to genetic evolution; nor does it depend upon “discrete, faithfully replicating, genelike bits of information.” I quite agree, but then so would Dawkins and most other memeticists.


Nor do replicators have to be “discrete, faithfully replicating, genelike bits of information”. Dawkins long ago pointed out that the copying fidelity of most memes is very low, there is often no right way of deciding where one meme begins and another ends, and most memes do not appear to be particulate – themes later taken up by both Dennett (1995) and me (Blackmore 1999).

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