Thursday, 20 September 2012

On the rate of cultural evolution

One of the myths about cultural evolution is to do with its speed. It is often claimed that cultural evolution is faster than biological [sic] evolution. This claim may - or may not be correct. However, almost all of the proponents of the idea are using very bad accounting techniques to prove their claims.

A good example comes from a recent paper by Charles Perreault titled: The Pace of Cultural Evolution.

This compares rates of cultural evolution and biological [sic] evolution - and finds that cultural evolution is faster. However, the article makes two very wrong assumptions:

It compares cultural evolution with evolution rates in wild animals. Animal populations have much longer generation times than some biological systems - sich as bacteria and viruses. Memes are a lot like bacteria and viruses in that they reproduce rapidly and can spread from host to host. Wild animals are not an appropriate point of comparison for memes - their lifespans are too long.

Charles Perreault anticipates this objection - to some extent - by going on to argue that the effect is independent of generation times. However for cultural evolution he compares to the generation time of the host humans, writing:

the amount of cultural change observed per generation time (20 years) is significantly faster than what we would expect from biological evolution for a species with the same generation time as humans
Well, duh. Cultural change is the result of rapidly-reproducing memes, not slowly-reproducing humans. Mixing these two up is a fundamental mistake. The generation time in cultural evolution is the time for meme reproduction. The generation time in organic evolution is the time taken for gene reproduction in germ-line cells. Neither is 20 years - even in humans - unless you are confining your attention to sexual reproduction.

Meme reproduction rates can be very rapid - especially when you take intracrainial memetics into account. Since much meme reproduction occurs inside minds, large numbers of variations can be explored in a short period of time.

I'm afraid I think that the kind of analysis in this paper is completely hopeless - since it is based on a faulty understanding of the nature of cultural evolution.

Looking at the skyscrapers, microchips and space travel that have arisen in a remarkably short space of time as a result of cultural evolution, there may be something to the case that it is - in some sense - faster than DNA-based evolution. However, dud accounting doesn't help make the case for this, it just piles confusion onto the issue.

Update 2013-11-23: Charles Perreault now has a 2013 video titled: "The pace of cultural evolution".

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