Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Peter Richerson - cultural evolution video from Darwin 2009

The title is: Not by genes alone: Darwinian methods for the study of culltural evolution.

Expert Peter Richerson goes over the history and development of cultural evolution. Part of "Darwin 2009" at Stony Brook University - and probably part of the Darwin 200th & 150th celebrations.

It's a nice introduction, but, inevitably, I have a feq quibbles:

  • Peter compares variation in human genetic information with variation in human memetic information, and concludes that the variance in the memes is much greater. That's all very well, but it isn't really a fair comparison. Memes are cultural symbionts - and so one should compare them with organic symbionts. Variation in the combinations of persistent viral, bacterial and fungal symbionts is pretty large in humans.

  • Peter brings up the issue of inheritance of cultural acquired traits, but soon says that might not be such a big difference after all, though according to him we'll have to wait and see about that. The situation is that dogs pass on fleas they acquired during their lifespan to their offspring - much as humans pass on ideas they acquired during their lifespan to their offspring. Both the fleas and the ideas can mutate inside their hosts - and those changes are passed on as well. The organic and cultural realms are pretty similar in these regards.

  • Peter says that you can get memes from multiple sources - not just your parents. However, this isn't really much of a difference from the organic realm either, since you can get parasites from your offspring, peers, aunts and uncles as well - not just your parents.

  • Peter says that culture exhibits "biased transmission" - where we choose what memes we acquire. He says we are smart shoopers in the space of ideas - and are not "passive recipients, the way we are of our genes". However, humans are not passive recipients of the genes of organic symbiotes - any more that they are of the memes of cultural symbionts. For example, if you want to avoid a sexually-transmitted diseases, you can abstain, or use barrier contraceptives. The "passive recipient" model of genetic transmission is simply mistaken.

There's a pattern to these issues. They all apparently involve a failure to fully appreciate the idea of symbiosis and apply it to the cultural realm. Peter Richerson does know about symbiosis, and has proved it in his writings by comparing cultural entities to sumbionts, viruses and bacteria. However, for some reason, the implications don't always seem to filter through.

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