Sunday, 24 August 2014

The curious history of meme-gene coevolution

Once serious interest in the topic of cultural evolution was rekindled in the 1970s, something very strange happened to it in academia. Most of the interested parties became obsessed with the topic of meme-gene co-evolution. Retrospectively, this seems like a curious approach to exploring the subject area. I have likened it to trying to fly before you can walk. The more obvious approach is to study cultural evolution first - and then go on to study the more advanced, esoteric and difficult topic of meme-gene co-evolution later.

The work I am mostly talking about resulted in four books. These ones:

  • Lumsden, C. and Wilson, Edward O. (1981) Genes, Mind, and Culture.
  • Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. & Feldman, M. W. (1981) Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (1985) Culture and the evolutionary process.
  • Durham, William H. (1991) Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity.

These books don't really represent a sample of the field, these were the first books on the topic and were pretty-much all of the books on the topic at the time.

In this article, I will argue that this focus on the distant past was unhealthy one, and has produced a hangover that continues to this day.

The problems with focusing on meme-gene co-evolution are that:

  • The topic is difficult and demands a deep understanding of cultural evolution;
  • The distant past, is a difficult area to explore.
The problems with studying the distant past are that:

  • Evidence is difficult to obtain;
  • Experiments are challenging to perform;
  • Predictions are difficult to test.

As a double-whammy, researchers in the field appeared to all be copying each other. There was a cultural founder-effect and the focus on meme-gene coevolution spread to most of the researchers involved.

Why this happened in the first place is not entirely clear. Some of the researchers involved were heavily interested in genes and genetics. For Lumsden, Wilson, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, the idea of a meme must have been immediately followed in their minds by questions about how this related to all the things they already knew about genes and DNA-based evolution. These were researchers who were already obsessed with ancient human history long before they developed an interest in cultural evolution. Another issue may have involved funding sources. Research would often have had to be framed in terms that administrators could understand. A fringe research area that fell between academic departments and had no established community needs to get funding somehow - and perhaps the link to human DNA-based evolution helped with funding the field. Another possibility is that if other folk in your field are studying a difficult and esoteric topic, you have to join in to keep up. Going for meme-gene co-evolution suggests that you already have the topic of meme-based evolution down pat - and are ready for more advanced topics. This could have been a case of academics deliberately focusing on complex and difficult topics - for the sake of prestige.

Whatever the reasons, the early history of cultural evolution in academia largely turned into the history of meme-gene coevolution.

If instead the focus had been on memetic evolution, probably a lot more progress could have been made. To a first approximation, genes represent a static background against which cultural evolution takes place. This is because cultural evolution has such short generation times and takes place so much faster than the evolution of DNA-based human genes. This means that you can usefully study cultural evolution while ignoring the complex and difficult topic of meme-gene co-evolution.

Cultural evolution is highly visible in modern times. There is an enormous wealth of data, and experiments in the field are simple and easy to perform. Furthermore, there are big practical applications on hand. Advertising and marketing departments have dollars to spend on discovering what things are most shared. The field of education in interested to know how best to cultivate young minds. The military wants to know how to brainwash and manipulate through propaganda - and so on and so forth.

The early, narrow focus within academia on the topic of meme-gene co-evolution has had a large negative impact on the field of Darwinian cultural evolution that continues to this day. Looking at the modern literature on the topic the obsession is less intense than it once was, but still a significant factor. I wish the whole field would shake off its obsession with ancient history, and get more involved in the modern world.

We need a healthy theory of cultural evolution partly to help us guide the course of cultural evolution on the challenging oceans represented by the modern technological world. The obsession with human DNA evolution isn't helping too much with this. Culture is now moving so fast, that meme-gene co-evolution is rapidly becoming an irrelevant topic. The academic experts in the field need to get off their old bandwagon and get with the program.

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