Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Boyd and Richerson's cultural evolution vs memetics

Boyd and Richerson's conception of cultural evolution seems to have become on of the most popular ones in academia. It is one of the closest theories to memetics that academics have come up with. As it (correctly) says here: "the biggest difference is a difference in academic lineage". I've written various articles contrasting their views with memetics as I understand it. However, this seems like time for a summary post. Here are what seem to me to be the main "sticking points":

  • Terminology. Boyd and Richerson use "cultural variant" while memetics uses the "meme" terminology from Richard Dawkins. "Cultural variant" hides the link to biology in a manner apparently designed to appeal to anthropologists. With "meme" the link to biology is up front and central. As far as I can tell, the terms are functional synonyms - though "cultural variant" is a lot more long winded and a lot less popular.

  • Boyd and Richerson seem to see many more differences between cultural and organic evolution than memeticists do. For details of this see the differences remain exaggerated article. To memeticists, Boyd and Richerson seem to not understand the parallels properly. That matters, because understanding the similarities and differences is one of the primary points of the scientific effort to study cultural evolution.

  • Boyd and Richerson have put a big focus on gene-meme coevolution. By contrast in memetics, genes typically change too slowly to be worth considering, and the main focus is on the evolution of memes. A related difference is that Boyd and Richerson have mostly been considering events many thousands of years ago. Memetics generally has much more modern concerns. Gene-meme coevolution is a much more complex, difficult and poorly-understood topic than memetic evolution is. Many academics became obsessed with it in the 1980s. It was not a particularly positive obsession. It was rather like trying to fly before you could walk. Impressive, but not terribly sensible.

  • Memetics is symbiology-rich. Boyd and Richerson have written a little about symbiology in cultural evolution, but mention it rarely and seem to regard it as an analogy. To a memeticsist, their work often appears to be symbiology-challenged.

  • Boyd and Richerson are long-standing supporters of group selection. By contrast, I - and probably most other evolutionists - prefer to look at evolution in terms of kin selection. Group selection appears to have led Boyd and Richerson astray. For example they argued in their 2005 book that group selection did not have a significant effect on human DNA. Now that the equivalence of kin selection and modern forms of group selection is widely understood, this claim appears to be unsupportable.

  • Memeticists tend to be Darwinian revolutionaries. By contrast, Boyd and Richerson do not seem to be revolutionaries. Instead, they say:

    We believe that the Darwinian theory of cultural evolution will make contributions across the broad sweep of problems in the human sciences, but the project is one of introducing additional useful tools and unifying concepts rather than an imperial ambition to replace great swaths of existing theory or methods.

    They even contrast their "better mousetrap" with Dennett's "Universal acid". I remember that one of my thoughts on reading "Not by Genes alone" was: how do they make this revolutionary material seem so dry?

On a slightly more positive side, by persistent efforts, Boyd and Richerson appear to be managing something memetics has yet to achieve - namely making cultural evolution respectable in academia. There's still a long way to go here, but their efforts here are welcome.

On the other hand, if it wasn't for them, maybe we would have some real memetics in academia - instead of a feeble and watered-down version apparently designed to appeal to anthropologists. As vocal opponents of memetics, Boyd and Richerson may well have a lot to answer for. I think most students of memes have ambivalent feelings towards their work.

We still need a strong version of memetics to be championed from within academia. My current expectation is that the promise of cultural kin selection will help to open the flood gates on a meme-oriented view of cultural evolution - broadly mirroring what happened with kin selection and genes in the the organic realm in the 1960s and 1970s.


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