Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Why no cultural creatures in academia?

Now that cultural evolution is making such good progress in academia, can memeticists just leap onboard?

I don't think so - not just yet, anyway. Apart from the whole issue of long-winded terminology, although these are very similar theories, they have a different emphasis and history - and memetics is still much, much better in some areas. The approaches obviously need to fuse - but at the moment they still have some significant incompatibilities.

Alex Mesoudi - in his recent book - has a soundbite which encapsulates one of the differences in the approaches of academic researchers in cultural evolution and memetics.

Mesoudi says:

In a typical cultural evolution model, a population is assumed to be composed of a set of individuals, each of whom posseses a particular set of cultural traits. A set of microevolutionary processes is specified that changes the variation of those traits over time.

I can verify that this is a pretty accurate description of what most cultural evolution models in academia are like.

By contrast in memetics, there are organic creatures and cultural creatures - two interwoven lifecycles to consider. These typically play the role of host and endosymbiont. The endosymbionts are usually parasites, or mutualists. All the standard models of symbiosis in biology are thus applicable to the cultural realm, and can simply be imported.

On page 7 of Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Boyd and Richerson give what appears to be an argument against such cultural creatures. They say:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modelling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.

This seems to be fundamentally the wrong approach. It is like saying: to study the evolution of AIDS, we should focus on on observable events in the lives of the AIDS sufferers. Yes, that method will result in some progress - but it is a fundamentally misguided approach - because it ignores the HIV virus itself.

I have looked at a lot of the literature and I don't think this is just a case of model simplification to produce something tractable. Cultural evolution researchers have a real blind spot when it comes to cultural creatures - although they do sometimes receive an occasional mention - usually as an "analogy". I give some examples of this in my book.

A more correct and complete model would include cultural creatures and organic creatures in a symbiosis. The cultural creatures do evolve outside of their organic hosts. Books get burned. CDs get scratched, hard disc drives crash, and computers filter and process memes. Yes, you can attempt to model these as "microevolutionary transmission processes" - but that produces nasty complexity - it is much better and much simpler to just recognise cultureal avolution as dominated by symbiosis - and then reuse existing symbiosis-based models.

OK - so cultural creatures may sound like something out of science fiction - but they are essential for understanding human culture. These things have genotypes, phenotypes, and their own lifecycles - it is just obvious that they are best treated as symbionts - if you stop and think about it for a moment or two.

Due to only attempting to model half of the creatures in the relationship, cultural evolution in academia has become a feeble and dumbed-down version of memetics - which got this right from the very beginning. The academic researchers involved apparently need to pull their socks up in this area - before they go very much further.

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