Sunday, 18 May 2014

Richerson and Brown on rival theories

Gillian R. Brown and Peter J. Richerson have a nice 2013 article on the differences between:
  • Human Behavioural Ecology;
  • Evolutionary psychology;
  • Cultural evolution;
Since they are both proponents of cultural evolution the article spends much of its time explaining where the other fields go wrong.

It's a good article, but while reading it, I was reminded of the difference in perspective between what the article describes as cultural evolution and the memetics tradition.

The concerns of memetics seem modern to me, while these authors seem to be mostly concerned with distant prehistory - a poorly-documented era which it is difficult to study.

The article contrasts the idea of an "adaptive lag" (from evolutionary psychology) with cultural evolution's idea that cultural adaptation works quickly to eliminate adaptive mismatch. They say:

Thus, Cultural Evolutionists expect that many types of temporal and spatial mismatches between ancestral human adaptations and their current environments will be solved by Cultural Evolution fairly quickly; for example, the development of protective clothing and shelter technology systems has allowed human beings to survive in environments with extreme low temperatures. Cultural Evolution seems to explain why humans have been, if anything, more successful in the Holocene than in the Pleistocene.

This is perfectly reasonable - but memetics is typically much more interested in the areas of mismatch - where meme and gene interests are not aligned. Mismatch helps to distinguish gene-based theories from meme-based ones. It covers the cases where humans are manipulated by others, using memes - an important case to defend against. Basically, misalignment of interests has the advantages of conflict over cooperation - there's more damage and more newsworthyness.

The authors are aware that memes can be maladaptive. For example, they write:

the risk of acquiring maladaptive information might have increased substantially in modern environments, for example because mass media exposes us to many attractively packaged cultural variants designed by advertisers to increase their sales, not the recipients fitness.

Just so - but memetics focuses on these types of case a lot more.

Other differences are that the authors invoke group section - rather than kin selection - to explain cooperation caused by cultural evolution. Also the article seems symbiology free to me - as though the revolution in our understanding of symbiosis in the 1960s-1980s never happened. An article from someone versed in memetics would surely be full of terms such as "parasite" and "mutualist" to describe cultural symbionts. This article skips over these concepts and terminology - it is symbiology-challenged.

Human behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology seem like weak competitors to what the authors describe as "cultural evolution" to me. It is plain that these disciplines will need to incorporate theories of cultural evolution if they expect to do very much useful work.

Memetics on the other hand, covers the same subject matter in a similar way - but with considerably different emphasis from these authors. Reconcilliation there is also needed - but it looks like a more challenging prospect to me.

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