Saturday, 8 November 2014

Culture vs innovation and norms

I think that memetics should cover all of cultural evolution. However various more narrow kinds of study have also been proposed:

  • Diffusion of innovations;
  • Evolution of norms;
  • Evolutionary epistemology;
While specialization has its merits, it seems to be that there's too much Balkanization here. I've long been aware of the work on diffusion of innovations - and how it myopically parallels the cultural evolution literature. However, there appears to be a similar phenomenon going on within sociology - where a whole raft of researchers obsessively focus on the evolution of social norms. I'm sure that the evolution of norms is a very interesting topic. However, most of its regularities and rules apply to other forms of culture as well - and it often seems as though that isn't being appreciated.

Looking at the literature on norms and innovations it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many of those involved often don't see the bigger picture of cultural evolution.

The overall picture is reminiscent to biology before Darwin. The topic was fragmented. Darwin brought a theoretical framework that unified it all.

Even among those who understand cultural evolution, Blackmore (1999) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) once proposed that only imitation and teaching were significant - and that these should be the main objects of study for cultural evolution. Yet culture that is transmitted in other ways mostly obeys the same rules. I think these folk have now mostly retracted their earlier opinions on this topic.

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