Monday, 13 January 2014

Culture's leash revisited

I expect that we'll have a widely-accepted consensus theory of cultural evolution at some stage.

That means that some of the current positions on the topic are likely to fall by the wayside.

One historical point of disagreement has been to what extent genes hold culture "on a leash". Memeticists have often insisted that any alleged leash could be broken - resulting in a memetic takeover. However, Wilson (2012) maintained his position on the topic, writing:

I am further inclined to discount the widespread belief that robotic intelligence will overtake and potentially replace human intelligence.

This was also one of Susan Blackmore's objections to Boyd and Richerson's position. She wrote:

Although Richerson and Boyd describe us and our culture as like obligate mutualists, they still maintain that “Culture is on a leash, all right” even if the dog on the end is big and clever.

Peter Richerson revisited the topic in a recent essay. He wrote:

Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson (1981) famously argued that the gene-culture coevolutionary process meant that culture was on a genetic leash. But if cultural processes are actually driving genetic evolution, it is by no means clear that genes control the coevolutionary process in the one-sided way they proposed.

This seems like a bit of an improvement. However, I don't see why we can't all be on the same page on this one. The possibility of a memetic takeover is widely recognized in the circles I move in. Denial that the "leash" could be broken would surely be irresponsible foolishness. A DNA-filled universe is the "Star Trek" fallacy - few futurists think it is at all plausible. It is the job of all scientists to make predictions. If the scientists involved fail to recognize this possibility, they are guiding the rest of us with a lamentable blind spot.

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