Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Does culture include artifacts?

There are many defintions of "culture" - and some of them claim that culture is informational - for example:
Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.

- Boyd and Richerson, 2005.

Alex Mesoudi gives a similar definition in his 2011 book - droping the dubious "own species" requirement:
Culture is information that is acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language.

- Alex Mesoudi, 2011.

Here, Mesoudi, Boyd and Richerson give information-theory definitions of culture, in which culture consists of heritable information. Such definitions exclude material culture. Under these definitions a recipe would be "cultural" - but a cake would not be - rather it would be a cultural artifact.

Aunger (2005) also excludes artefacts - claiming that:

there is considerable agreement that culture consists solely of things "in the head".
Others explicitly include cultural artifacts:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts

- Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C., 1952.

I think the information-theory definitions are essentially undesirable. They don't include the whole of culture. Culture is not just memes, it is also meme products. The meme products are important mediators of cultural influences - and seem more like part of the whole phenomenon than something separate from it.

An inclusive definition of culture is a good match for traditional usage of the term. Having the term "culture" being defined to be heritable information creates a substantial terminological hole where "memes and meme-products" are - and there seems to be no suitable word to fill it. I frequently compare and contrast the organic realm (of DNA and phenotypes) with the cultural realm (of memes and meme products). If I that realm is not "cultural", then what should it be called?

Also, the "heritable information" aspect of culture is precisely what the terms "memes", "memeplex", "memotype" and "meme pool" are there to refer to. Having the term "culture" refer to that as well seems rather redundant.

In memetics, the idea that memes / culture are "in the head" is known as "internalism". This position has been fairly widely rejected by many memeticists. Dennett, Hull, Blackmore and myself all reject internalism.

The kind of definition of culture used here relates to the idea culture = artifacts + sociofacts + mentifacts - which is based on terminology from Julian Huxley.


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