Sunday, 28 April 2013

Tim Tyler: Durham, Coevolution (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

Coevolution - Genes, Culture and Human Diversity - by William Durham

This is a book on how genetic and memetic systems coevolve. It was written in 1992. At the time of its publication, it was probably the best available book on the topic.

The book is pretty good. It covers topics such as the coevolution of agriculture memes, malaria resistance genes and lactose tolerance genes. In each case, the memes and the genes evolve together and influence each other - usually with the memes leading and the genes following. The author has a good grasp of both the theory and the anthropological literature on the topic. I was also pleased to see that the book endorses and uses the "meme" terminology from Richard Dawkins.

There aren't too many flaws in the book. However, the author reviews the work of previous authors in the area - and does a pretty good job of pointing out the flaws in their work. One of the few problems that I noticed was that the author seemed to lack a good understanding of evolution within individual minds. This led to a number of incorrect statements relating to alleged differenes between cultural and organic evolution. However, for the most part the author focused on areas where the effects of this problem were minimized.

One slight oddity about the book is its subject matter. Most of the previous academic books in the same general area had focused on gene-meme interactions. This book has the exact same focus. Retrospectively, it seems as though academics were attempting to master the more complex and difficult topic of gene-meme coevolution over deep time before they had properly pinned down a decent theory of how memes coevolve with their host's brains in the short term.

A few theories could account for this curious progression: perhaps academics like to work on hard problems; perhaps they like to show off; or perhaps they were copying each other. The term gene-culture coevolution was first used by academics without much sign of understanding of cultural evolution as a Darwinian system. The term stuck and subsequent authors continued to work in the same area. This led to a curious bias in the field, where short-term cultural evolution itself was practically ignored, and the focus was on how genes and culture interacted over deep time. The focus of this field was events in the distant past. By contrast, cultural evolution itself is powerfully relevant to modern times - and can easily be studied using natural experiments and laboratory experiments. What it would have been nice to have seen in, the 1990s, was theorists escaping from the rut that academia had got itself into, and exploring the relatively uncharted territory of how culture evolves. However, this book didn't to do that - and instead ploughed deeper into the existing furrow - of how cultural variation influences genetic evolution.

Another omission from the book is meme-meme coevolution. A modern theory of coevolution relating to humans would normally include memes, DNA genes and ideas copied within minds that are not socially-transmitted. By my count these three basic types of copied entity give rise to six possible kinds of coevolution between quite different types of structure. This book only considers the case of meme-gene coevolution. However, there's quite a bit more to coevolution than that.

Nonetheless, for 1992, this book seems quite advanced. A lot of effort evidently went into its production. The book is fairly clear and readable. It was a promising start - which makes the field's subsequent slow progress more puzzling. Perhaps not enough people bothered to read it.


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