Thursday, 2 June 2011

Environmental inheritance

Environmental inheritance refers to inheritance via the environment. It includes cultural evolution - but also other types of heritable environmental influences.

If I give my son a big suitcase full of gold bars when I die, few would claim this is a case of cultural inheritance. Yet it is pretty clearly a form of inheritance.

The Big Three

Environmental inheritance is the third of the "Big Three" inheritance channels available to natural systems:

  • Organic inheritance;
  • Cultural inheritance;
  • Environmental inheritance;


Representing these forms of inheritance as a diagram, it looks something like this:

Here you will see that cultural inheritance is represented as a subset of environmental inheritace. This is because all culture must currently necessarily be represented "in the environment" at some point during its transmission down the generations.


Non-cultural environmental inheritance is pretty important. It typically includes your place on the planet, the ecosystem you are born into, and a bunch of non-cultural resources that result from modification of the environment by your ancestors.

Xemes and Xemetics

If memes are defined as only transmitting culturally-inherited information, it would be nice to have another term for environmental inheritance. I propose Xemes (based on eXternal transmission). Xemetics could be the science of Xemes. Xemes is pronounced rather like "Zemes" - NOT "eX-emes".

Implications for Dual Inheritance Theory

Non-cultural environmental inheritance is one of the big things that is wrong with Dual Inheritance Theory.

IMHO, non-cultural environmental inheritance is big enough and important enough to make Dual Inheritance Theory seem as though it has a very silly name.


John Odling-Smee - Construction Dynamics Seminar Series - Niche Construction and Niche Inheritance.

Niche construction intro video.


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