Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cultural kin selection and the meme revolution

Kin selection played a significant role in the gene revolution. As William Hamlton put it:

We need to descend to the level of the gene, rather than the individual, in order to see that the gene exists surrounded by copies of identical genes that exist in all its relatives [...] Seeing this swarm of genes that exists around a particular one, we can then ask what is the behavior caused by this gene that is most likely to cause the propagation of this set of copies in the relatives around it.

This "descending to the level of the gene" is known as "the gene's eye view".

Just as kin selection led to and helped to promote the gene's eye view - so cultural kin selection will help promote the meme's eye view.

The meme's eye view has always been part of memetics, but is has been largely ignored by social scientists. Many of them are absurdly confused about the 'meme' concept - complaining that it atomizes cultural wholes into isolated pieces, or that replicators are only one part of evolution - or a string of other equally silly objections.

In 1985, Boyd and Richerson explicitly focused on the human hosts involved, saying:

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 rather myopic perspective has lasted for thirty years - with most analysis of cultural epidemiology focusing on the human hosts - and not on the memes themselves.

As Steven Shennan put it in 2013:

The variation, selection and retention processes that underlie cultural evolution were laid out in detail more than 25 years ago (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981, Boyd and Richerson, 1985) and have been extensively elaborated on since (e.g. papers in Boyd and Richerson, 2005). However, this has mostly been done from an agent-centred perspective and not from that of the cultural lineages themselves - the "memes eye view" - and the two are not the same.

It seems reasonable to expect that the rise of cultural kin selection will significantly promote the "memes eye view". From the perspective of memeticists this will be a long overdue development - since it is what they have been saying all along.

Memetics has been ahead of its time for far too long. Looking at the scale of cultural evolution's scientific lag in academia, it seems reasonable to expect that cultural kin selection will start becoming more prominent in academia around about now. It seems practically inevitable that this will drag the "meme's eye view" (and thus a big chunk of memetics) into academia as well. It will be about time.


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