Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Matt Ridley - Genes, technology and the evolution of culture

Matt Ridley discusses cultural evolution and the origins of modern humans, and how cultural evolution leads and DNA genes follow.

He gives the example of blue eyes, claiming it was a consequence of agriculture, followed by the colonisation of northern Europe. That seems plausible to me.

Matt is asked a question about memetics 58 minutes in, and he generally expresses his approval - saying:

Q: I was wondering how a theory of memetics maps on your account?

A: Yeah, um, good question: how does the theory of memetics map on to my ideas and the meme theory that ideas behave like genes in that they replicate - essentially remember I ran through a series of slides of things that you need to find for an evolutionary system to work - memetics is concentrating on that "replictoion" slide - where I showed a picture of aeroplanes on an assembly line - memetics is talking about whether ideas replicate and copy themselves, etc, and it's therefore part of the story - but I'm focussing on the other parts of the story, at least particularly the "recombination" part. It's another analogy for a genetic evolutionary process - which is all part of the story - so it's a different emphasis - it's a different side of the same coin.

In fact, memetic recombination is surely part of memetics, in exactly the same way that genetic recombination is part of genetics.

Matt wrote a whole book on cultural evolution recently. There's a lot of "ideas having sex" - but memes are only mentioned on one page. That was a spectacularly disappointing turn-out.

Matt gives a similar talk here: Deep Optimism.

What about Matt's ideas about cultural recombination (starting around 22 minutes into the video)? Memetic recombination is probably ancient - predating the split with chimpanzees. For example, this video 27 minutes in, apparently shows a combination of chimpanzee ideas. They barter too a little - but they don't really have many artefacts to barter. So yes, recombination may well be important - but we are probably just talking about a cultural snowball that eventually got big enough to start picking up speed on its own. If you want an event to pin the birth of the recent human explosion on, the end of the last glacial cycle looks as though it is the most obvious candidate.

The other thing to say is that trade is not really the same thing as memetic recombination. Trade might well increase the rate of memetic recombination - but they aren't the same thing. I gave some examples of memetic recombination in my own book on memetics. My examples were "portmanteaus" - like:

  • cyborg - comes from cybernetic and organism;
  • ginormous - comes from gigantic and enormous;
Why doesn't trade qualify? Trade is more like two ecosystems exchanging organisms. That does "recombine" things - in a sense - but we don't usually describe moving creatures around between ecosystems as being a form of sexual recombination. IMO, memetic recombination ought to cleave functional units - at least sometimes - or it isn't really playing the same functional role that recombination plays in the organic realm.

Lastly, it is worth noting that recombination within minds doesn't discriminate between ideas that are the product of individual learning and social learning. Individually-learned ideas can recombine - and that has nothing to do with trade, or socially-transmitted memes.


  1. “... a spectacularly disappointing turn-out.”

    I like your turn of phrase! :)

  2. Superb video! Thanks for linking to it!