Monday, 19 March 2012

Tim Tyler: Shennan, Genes, Memes and Human History (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution by Stephen Shennan.

This is a book about archaeology. It starts out with a couple of chapters about human behavioural ecology and cultural evolution. Stephen begins by saying that he was originally turned on to the idea of cultural evolution by reading the chapter on memes in Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene. However, he said that, at the time, he didn't see how to apply the idea of memes to archeaology. He later came across the book "Culture and the Evolutionary Process" by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd - which set the wheels turning in his mind and gave him some clearer ideas about the practical significance of the idea.

Most of this book is about archaeology - and its fairly dense material. Archaeology is not my own area - and so I can't offer a balanced review of much of the content of the book. However, I can comment on the parts of the book that relate to cultural evolution.

I had positive expectations of Stephen's work after listening to him eloquently advocate the value of the meme's eye view at the 2010 "culture evolves" conference. However, there's not much meme's eye view in this 2003 book. Indeed, there isn't much memetics at all. Stephen starts out by saying that he has:

considerable reservations about the role and reality of memes in the strict sense, conceived as specific discrete cultural elements copied from one person to another.
In his chapter about cultural evolution, he says that many authors have doubts about memes. He lists a string of those doubts and then writes:
It appears then that the "meme as replicator" model has considerable problems as the basis for a theory of cultural inheritance. Fortunately, accepting that culture is an inheriance system does not depend on the meme model.
The index of the book lists memes on only separate eight pages. Since the book has the word "memes" in its title, I was disappointed by this sparse and unsympathetic coverage.

For students of the topic, it is obvious that something a lot like what memetics discribes is going on as culture evolves. I think that students of memetics should be trying to get memetics to work - by finding sympathetic interpretations of it that do useful work. Unsypmathetic interpretations that are not useful - such as the one that Stephen seems to have adopted - can surely be binned as not contributing to the main effort.

Stephen appreciates that memes can be deleterious - and that drift and selection apply to them - but there isn't much sign of the symbiosis perspective on memes. At one point Stephen does say:

we do not need to accept the cultural virus or meme ideas to see how the processes of genetic and cultural transmission can lead to different outcomes.
That's a bit negative about symbiosis - but shows that Stephen has at least heard of the concept.

The early chapters on human behavioural ecology and cultural evolution are generally not too bad. The cultural evolution is fairly basic - though a sophisticated theory is probably not needed for most archaeological applications. Archaeology can mostly get by with just diffusion, selection, drift and the basic concepts of phylomemetics.

One other chapter was of some interest to me - the book has a chapter on group selection. Stephen had previously stated that group selection "did not seem to work" - in his chapter on behavioural ecology. However, in the "group selection" chapter he cites Soltis, Skyrms, Bowles and Gintis - and discusses group selection in favourable terms. However, I am inclined to think that much of the work that has been done on human group selection by these authors is problematical - since they don't seem to be properly aware of the concept of cultural kin selection - which explains many of the effects they are attempting to model at the group level by using interactions between close cultural kin. There's a sense in which group selection and kin selection models are equivalent - but because close cultural kin are involved, this is fairly clearly a case where group selection is getting credit for kin selection's moves.

The group selection chapter was mostly involved with an examination of the evidence - and didn't delve into theoretical issues very much.

This book has its moments. However, it is all about archaeology - and people should not buy it expecting to learn very much about memes. Memes essentially get bashed by the author in the book. Memetics is treated more sympathetically elsewhere.


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