Sunday, 24 February 2013

Alan Grafen on cultural phenotypes

Alan wrote something odd about memes in a recent paper. He wrote that we should not expect to find "well-designed cultural phenotypes".

Here's what he wrote:

Third, the foregoing discussion of the importance of uniformity of relatedness across loci raises a question about memes. In the genetic theory, the number of offspring is the same for all loci (assuming that they all have the same pattern of inheritance), and it is in relatedness, once social behaviour is considered, that we saw the possibility of discordance. But with cultural inheritance, the number of offspring will be different for each culturgen, and we should therefore not expect to find well-designed cultural phenotypes.
However, it seems pretty obvious that we do see some pretty "well-designed cultural phenotypes". The memes that make up (say) Linux might not have quite the harmony of those that make up an elephant - but the level of functional design is not really obviously lower.

Also, there are things like books - what are created by a single author. Yes, the underlying memes may be fighting for survival, but they still get vetted by a human designer, in the process of making a designed whole. I think the supposed lack of well-designed cultural phenotypes is being exaggerated by Alan here.

The place where we do see conflict is between all the memes inside an individual human. However, refering to all the memes inside an individual human as a "cultural phenotype" is the fallacy of the inclusive phenotype. That's what you often get if you approach cultural evolution without a proper understanding of symbiology. I hope that Alan wasn't going there.


Grafen, Alan (2009) Formalizing Darwinism and inclusive fitness theory.

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