Monday, 25 May 2015

Acerbi and Mesoudi on the differences between cultural and organic evolution

Acerbi and Mesoudi discuss the differences between cultural and organic evolution in a recent paper [*]. I don't think they get it right. Here is the passage:

While they adopted the same mathematical tools as used in biology, they were careful not to import assumptions regarding genetic evolution that are unlikely to apply to cultural evolution. For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) modelled the consequences of not just vertical cultural transmission (learning from biological parents) but also oblique cultural transmission (learning from unrelated members of the parental generation) and horizontal cultural transmission (learning from peers), as well as specific forms of the latter such as one-to-many transmission (typical of mass media). Boyd and Richerson (1985) modelled conformist cultural transmission (preferentially adopting the majority behaviour in the population) and model-based cultural transmission (preferentially learning from particularly high status or prestigious individuals), which again have no clear parallel in biological evolution.

IMO, this content is practically all mistaken:

  • You can get memes from unrelated members of your parents generation. However you can also get genes from them: genes for coughs, colds and flea bites.
  • You can get memes from peers. However you can also get genes from them: genes for AIDS, pox and warts.
  • Memes exhibit one-to-many transmission. However so do genes (see measles outbreaks).
  • Menes which are like population averages can spread - but so can average genes. Beauty genes are a common example - where extremes are avoided and average is beautiful.
  • Memes from high status or prestigious individuals spread. However often so do their genes. The phenomenon is known as "sexual selection". High status and prestige are often sexually attractive.

The similarities and differences between cultural and organic evolution should be part of cultural evolution 101. These seem like pretty basic differences to me and I don't really understand why they are so persistent. Is it inertia? A failure to communicate? The slow adoption of symbiology? Or what?


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