Thursday, 3 November 2011

Which evolutionary paradigm is gaining?

Numerous paradigms embracing evolutionary theory and human society compete with one another for mindshare in an epic memetic battle.

This graph illustrates the progress of some of them over time:

Google's Ngrams paints a sllightly different picture - with "cultural evolution" apparently doing better:

Memetics is still doing badly.

Cultural evolution is still doing about as badly as memetics in search volume - but better in books.

Evolutionary psychology has considerable volume, but it is also in decline. Also, evolutionary psychology is mostly concerned with the nuclear basis of human universals - most practitioners have little understanding of the evolution of culture.

Sociobiology is also in decline. Evolutionary psychology is sociobiology in drag - so the decline of sociobiology may represent migration.

Niche construction - Laland's beautiful-but-dubiously-named theory has made little progress.

Epigenetics appears to be the winner. It has the most volume overall and it is increasing in popularity.

The new epigenetics scores poorly with this author - though Waddington's original meaning of "epigenetics" was just fine. SInce epigenetics has been a much-used term for a while, perhaps some of its popularity is due to Waddington's usage.

Epigenetic inheritance is an oxymoron because genetics is the science of inheritance, heredity and variation in biological systems. You can't have "epigenetic" inheritance - inheritance is "genetic" - by definition. They mean: epi-nuclear inheritance, or something llike that - but their terminology is awful.

Perhaps even worse, if you look at the epigenetics literature, few understand that culture evolves. It is all methylation this and histone that. Cultural inheritance is the usually-unmentioned elephant in the room. Some (e.g. Jablonka) recognise the existence of cultural inheritance - but most epigenetics authors just don't seem to understand their own subject. The Wikipedia article on the topic is typical in this respect.

Epigenetics may be popular, but in its modern form, it is severely screwed-up. I think it would be helpful to future generations of scientists if the new epigenetics curled up and died.


  1. Tim Tyler,
    What I understand of epigenetics has little to do with cultural evolution or memetics. Epigenetics is about the modulation of the expression of genes, i.e. if they are turned on, or off, or more or less expressed. Epigenetics has a way of being inherited sexually biologically. 

    Although, somehow this might overlap with memetics, this later if much more about cultural and non genetic coding in the brain. 
    Your opinion seams to be missing this point. 

  2. Cultural inheritance *does* modulatate the expression of genes - it has to in order to affect phenotypes at all.

    The new epigenetics, according to most definitions, has nothing to do with sexual inheritance - it is all about inheritance *not* being via DNA.

    FWIW, epigenetic inheritance minus cultural inheritance would be an *even more* screwed-up concept.