Thursday, 19 April 2012

Cultural traits - the meme's new clothes?

I read this paper recently:

  • Mesoudi, Alex, O'Brien MJ, Lyman RL, VanPool TL. (2010) Cultural traits as units of analysis.

    Heres the start of the abstract:

    Cultural traits have long been used in anthropology as units of transmission that ostensibly reflect behavioural characteristics of the individuals or groups exhibiting the traits. After they are transmitted, cultural traits serve as units of replication in that they can be modified as part of an individual's cultural repertoire through processes such as recombination, loss or partial alteration within an individual's mind. Cultural traits are analogous to genes in that organisms replicate them, but they are also replicators in their own right. No one has ever seen a unit of transmission, either behavioural or genetic, although we can observe the effects of transmission.
    "Cultural traits are analogous to genes"?

    That muddles together the phenotype and genotype!

    A cake isn't analogous to a gene, since it is the recipe that makes it that is normally copied from.

    It's memes that are most like genes, not the traits that they code for.

    Traits can sometimes behave a little like genes if there's only a trivial developmental process involved in their production. If developmental processes become more complex, traits become a lot less like genes and a lot more like bodies.

    I'm pretty sure that - if more people adopted the memetics terminology, we could avoid this kind of muddle.

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