Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Tim Tyler: Swanson, Ever-Expanding Horizons


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a review of this book: Ever-Expanding Horizons: The Dual Informational Sources of Human Evolution by Carl P. Swanson.

The book says it its preface that is concerned with one question - namely: "What is the DNA of cultural evolution."

It gives its answer half way through the book - on page 87 - by saying:

A sociogene is defined here as a mental concept, a structured image, arising from one or more acts of experience, molded into shape and integrated with other sociogenes by the action of the central nervous system and from which information is extractable, expressible, and transmissible within the context of a social mileau.
"Sociogene" is a term that the author included in an earlier 1973 book - so it predates the term "meme".

The book dates from 1983 - so that's seven years after the selfish gene, two years after Lumsden and Wilson's Genes, Mind, And Culture book, two years after Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman's book Cultural Transmission and Evolution an d one year after The Extended Phenotype.

The author says that their book is based on reading an article written by V. Potter in 1964 called "Society and Science". He quotes from that article, saying:

the processes of natural selection and survival of ideas in cultural evolution are analogous to the natural selection and survival of DNA molecules in biological evolution, and that ideas are the key to understanding cultural evolution just as DNA molecules are the key to understanding biological evolution.
The author compares "sociogene" to the term "meme" and says that their meanings are similar. Today, the term "sociogene" as the author uses it would be described as being equivalent to an internalist conception of a meme. Sociogenes would today be called "neuromemes" by externalists.

Today on the internet references to the term "meme" outnumber references to the term "sociogene" by about 180,000 to 1. "Sociogene" was longer, mostly quite a bit later, and it wasn't attached to The Selfish Gene. As a result, it has practically gone extinct.

The term did have some advantages. "Sociogene" is pretty self-explanatory, while "meme" is not. The author contrasts sociogenes with biogenes - and this neatly and implicitly makes it clear that both are types of gene. The term "sociogene" allows terminology such as "sociophenotype" and "socioallele" to be used - while students of memetics can't adapt those two terms for the cultural realm quite so easily. Although I mostly approve of the idea of a "sociogene", the term biogene: that's the whole idea that DNA is biological and culture isn't, whereas if you actually think about it properly, culture is a biological phenomenon - so call calling DNA genes "biogenes" is just a bad way of thinking about things.

The book is mostly easy to read, fine and clear. It cites lots of literature - including the books I mentioned earlier - except for The Extended Phenotype. The author seems to have reasonable understanding of cultural evolution - though the book just looks at the issue of hereditity - and so many of the more common topics of cultural evolution are left unaddressed. Some parts of the book suffer from the flaw of being a bit boring. For example, the book goes on about the history of the universe and the mechanics of DNA copying for many pages - most readers will not be interested in such material.

The book takes a kind of internalist stance. Its unit of cultural heredity is defined as being inside a brain. The author never confronts the main challenge facing enthusiasts of internalism - which is what to with your conceptual framework once culture starts to be copied by machines. I guess computers were not considered to be so significant back in 1983.

The author uses his own "sociogenotype" term pretty sloppily - to refer to the culture of human individuals and of society. From a modern perspective, that looks as though he is using the term "genotype" to describe the heritable material of whole ecosystems, which seems a little confusing.

Some parts of the book have dated. For instance, the author says:

we know of no significant correlation between traits of known genetic origin and those of cultural derivation.

These days, that sounds odd. Most people in the field could probably come up with some examples of such traits pretty quickly.

To summarise, this is a nice book - though it seems likely that only those looking at a historical perspective are likely to seek it out.


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