Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Memes in "The Origin and Evolution of Cultures"

Going through "The Origin and Evolution of Cultures" - I find that it is pretty saturated with the "m" word - much of it apparently uncritical.

There are some interesting critical bits which I hadn't seen elsewhere. Boyd and Richerson say:

On the one hand, we have great sympathy with the views of the ‘‘universal’’ Darwinists like Daniel Dennett, Robert Aunger, and Susan Blackmore, who, following Richard Dawkins, employ the term to stress the analogies between genes and culture. On the other hand, we have several worries. One is academic punctilio. When Dawkins (1976) coined the term meme, he quite frankly admitted that he had done no scholarship in the social sciences. Fair enough in the context of a trade book, but, in fact, another pioneering universal Darwinist, Donald Campbell (1965, 1975), had done significant work on cultural evolution by 1976. Lucca Cavalli-Sforza and Marc Feldman (1973) had already published their pioneering formal models of cultural evolution.
So: Dawkins wasn't first. He realised that - citing Cavalli-Sforza and others at the time. That criticism doesn't seem very "substantial". They go on to say:

[A] more substantive problem is that the analogy between genes and culture is not very deep. The two are similar in that important information is transmitted between individuals. Both systems create patterns of heritable variation, which in turn implies that the population-level properties of both systems are important. Population-level properties require broadly Darwinian methods for analysis. But this just about exhausts the similarities. The list of differences is much larger. Culture is not based on direct replication but upon teaching and imitation. The transmission of culture is temporally extended. It is not necessarily particulate. Psychological processes have a direct impact on what is transmitted and remembered. These psychological effects can produce complex adaptations in the absence of natural selection. Users of the meme concept seem to us to believe that it does more work than it really does.
My perspective is rather different. If we just stick to the direct link between memes and genes, both exhibit: heredity, drift, selection, linkage, hitchhiking, expression, gradualism, and extinction.

However, that isn't reallythe correct way of looking at things. Rather there's a deep link between cultural and organic evolution. Both exhibit heredity with variation and selection - and in a benign environment, much follows from that - including cumulative adaptation, symbiosis, parasites, mutualism, drift, ontogeny, phylogeny, linkage, hitchhiking and devolution. The link between genes and memes is just one aspect of a much deeper set of features shared between cultural and organic evolution. Similarly there's a relationship between male and female human bodies. Male breasts are not the same as female breasts, but we know that are equivalent in a deep sense - because of all the other links between male and female bodies. It would be bad practice to just focus on the features of one organ - and then reject the link because of percieved differences - male and female breasts are homologous structures. So it is with memes and genes. There are deep links between organic and cultural evolution. After taking those into account, genes map onto memes.

As for the supposed differences Boyd and Richerson list:

  • The transmission of organic parasites and mutualists can be "temporally extended" too;
  • Psychological processes impact organic evolution too - for example via sexual selection;
  • Psychology producing complex adaptations mostly happens when the complex adaptation has previously been produced elsewhere via a selective process - or when a selective process goes on in the brain. The other cases are more like the way a footprint is an adaptive fit for a foot (such processes are not confined to human culture). Overall, this isn't really much of a difference.
That leaves: "Culture is not based on direct replication but upon teaching and imitation." That's sometimes true - though it is worth noting that probably the vast majority of human culture (in terms of bits) is copied using computer systems with extremely high copying fidelity. However, the general idea is that copying occurs - i.e. Shannon mutual information between the copies is created. The details of how that happens can be a bit different. Cultural heredity is not necessarily exactly the same as organic heredity - just pretty similar.

Another thing they say is:

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.
I think these fellows are within the anthroplogy department - so perhaps they are being polite. The social sciences are long overdue for a pretty spectacular and disruptive Darwinian revolution. Not too much pre-Darwinian biology survived Darwin's transition. Perhaps the social sciences will fare better - because they are older and wiser - but surely we can already see a large pile of dirty laundry that just needs throwing out.


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