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Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in my current series on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

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Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What’s a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change.

Dennett’s Memes

Dennett’s account of memes can be typified by two brief passages. The first is the fifth and last footnote in From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms:

There is considerable debate among memeticists about whether memes should be defined as brain-structures, or as behaviors, or some other presumably well-anchored concreta, but I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information worth copying (however embodied) since it is the information that determines how much design work or R and D doesn’t have to be re-done. That is why a wagon with spoked wheels carries the idea of a wagon with spoked wheels as well as any mind or brain could carry it.

That memes are information is central to Dennett’s meme doctrine, which follows from a similar idea in biology, that genes are information.

My problem is this: a signal can be said to carry information only with respect to a device that can read and/or write and interpret that information. Biologists know a great deal about the relevant biological mechanisms and, while psychologists do know a great deal about psychological and neuropsychological information processing, Dennett has little to say about that. For the most part “information processing” is a promissory note that Dennett is passing on to others to fulfill.

What Dennett does say about “information processing” is bound-up in a computational metaphor, such as this one in The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXIV, pp. 1-7, 2009). p. 5:

Similarly, when you acquire a language, you install, without realizing it, a Virtual Machine that enables others to send you not just data, but other virtual machines, without their needing to know anything about how your brain works.

Those other “virtual machines”–sometimes conceived as computer viruses, sometimes as benign apps–are memes. Dennett frequently endows these memes with agency, though a bit less so in his more recent publications, such as this one, and imagines them travelling around from one brain to another, looking for neural real estate they can occupy.

In the first place, computer software is created by programmers who have extensive knowledge about the platform for which they are coding software; they can thus “design from above” in a way that language. Dennett knows this, but mostly just shrugs if off by observing that, after all, humans did evolve without benefit of a designer, and we do speak. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact whereas humans install software in computers through a relatively simple procedure; language is acquired slowly over a decade or more.

Most of my criticisms address these issues, and do so in some detail (e.g. “Culture Memes Information WTF!”, “The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong”, and “Information WTF 2: The Candy Itself”).

Cultural Evolution, Some Concepts

In process I further articulate my own position, introducing and explicating my current terminology in ”Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology”:

meme: the observable properties of objects, events, or processes that are culturally active; the cultural analog to the biological gene.

substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. memes) are said to inhere.

ideotype: the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. Ideotypes are mental constructs arising in minds as brains engage with memes.

Much of my argument against Dennett is that the objects he calls memes are the objects I’m now calling ideotypes, an observation I explicate in detail in “Dennett’s Preformationist Memetics”.

Note that I DO NOT treat physical artifacts as memes nor, obviously, do I treat them as ideotypes (which are, by definition, entities in people’s minds). Culture’s physical artifacts need no more of an explanation than the explanation we give for termite’s nests or beaver dams. Culture exists in minds and that’s what we have to account for. Physical artifacts enter minds through observable qualities, some of which are memes, though not all observable qualities are memetic.

In “Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators” I finally assimilate my view to a standard conception of “information processing”: computation. Computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Memes are data of that type.

Concerning memes as targets: For example, assume that you want to make a stone ax head of the standard sort. Using an existing ax head as a model, you can treat its size and shape as targets against which one can judge progress in fabricating a new ax head. In this case a target is a parameter in a fabrication procedure that defines some aspect of the fabricated object.

In cybernetic terms, a target is a reference level for a control system. As such, perceptual targets are ubiquitous in animal behavior. But those targets are not specified by and given meaning by a matrix of cultural practices. They are not memes. But the target function is the psychological function on which evolution “bootstraps” complex culture into humans.

Memes as couplers come into play in real-time interaction between one or more people. When soldier’s march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

And that brings us to language and to memes as designators. The prime example here is the Saussurian signifier but not, I repeat NOT, the signified. And THAT’s Dennett’s problem in a nutshell. As signs, words consist of BOTH a signifier and a signified, but Dennett gives no attention to the distinction. From his point of view, as a thinker standing completely outside the language system, both signifier and signified are equally subject to cultural conventions, which of course they are. But those conventions play very different roles within the language system and are realized through different mechanisms.

Signifieds exist in the public domain where all can hear and see them. In contrast, signifiers exist in individual minds and, as the linguist William Croft points out, “getting speaker and hearer to converge on the same meaning is a problem, precisely because our thoughts cannot leave out heads” (Explaining Language Change, 2000, p. 111). Dennett simply dissolves this deep problem by characterizing language and culture in such a way that the problem cannot arise. Those Dennettian memes flit about from head to head all the time and remain unchanged. Convergence on meaning is thus given in the mechanism Dennett specifies.

Sure, as a practical matter Dennett knows that people misunderstand one another all the time, and that reaching agreement is often difficult, if not impossible. But the memetic theory he has so far proposed, such as it is, has no way of accounting for this. Thus his conception of cultural conventions is all but empty as it simply declares them existence from a transcendental point outside the system.

Stability and Change

Once the roles and the terminology (memes: targets, couplers, designators) are all in place I finally get around to, well, you know, cultural evolution, first in “How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?” and then in my final post, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”

That first post builds on Jeremy Burman’s 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (Persepctives on Science, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104). I extended his argument by offering an explicit model for the mind (cognitive networks). Burman argued that the meme concept changed from its original metaphorical sense in Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) to the active flitting homonculus when Dennett and Hofstadter recast and reordered Dawkins’s word in their edited collection, The Mind’s I (1982). That’s the concept that appealed to the public and to journalists.

I open my final argument by recalling remarks Dawkins made early in The Selfish Gene, where he argued that evolutionary change can only take place against a background of stable inheritance from one generation to the next. I then argue that cultural change happens when memes and, of course, assemblages of memes, cross from one population to another. That, in effect, is what Burman had argued. I offer another example by looking at a few performances of “Tutti Frutti”: Little Richard’s original performance in 1955, Pat Boone’s 1956 cover, and a much later performance by Queen (1986). Something had changed between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s.

Of course “Tutti Frutti” is but a single case from among that tens of thousands that make up the music known as rocka and roll, and then simply as rock. And rock and roll is but one genre if a whole ecosystem of popular 20th century styles turning on musical borrowing and reworkings between African-descendents European descendents, a cultural mixing that has, of course, European parallels (Queen, after all, is a British band). This cultural process has been described and examined in thousands journalistic and academic histories and commentaries, but it has not been well explained.

Are we now in a position to do better? That remains to be seen.

Replicators, Not

I suppose I should say a word about the notion of “replicators” The fact is, I nor longer find the term very useful. To be sure, it’s the topic of an early post: “Roles in Cultural Selection: Replicators, Interactors, and Beneficiaries, or, Where’s the Memes?” Both Dawkins, who coined the term, and Dennett use it as a core term: memes are replicators. But the notion of replication doesn’t get at the core mechanisms of cultural interaction as I’ve come to understand them.

I note as well that the concept of replication has proven to be problematic both within biology and in culture. John Wilkins has made some useful remarks about this in his response to the paper I posted at the National Humanities Center blog, On the Human. You might also consult a useful review by Peter Godfrey-Smith, “The Replicator in Retrospect”, Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000): 403-423.

More specifically, consider some exemplary wheel. That it is the source of target memes in the creation of other wheels means that those wheels will be copies of the example. The example wheel will have been replicated. But to focus on the wheel as a replicating entity is to miss the mechanisms by which that happens. That mechanism requires target values; those values are supplied by memes.

And so it goes with couplers and designators. Those types of memes play roles in certain kinds of (cultural) interactions between people. To the extent that those interactions are mutually satisfactory to the participlants, they will continue. The memes that enabled them will be passed on from individual to individual and will remain active over some period of time. But talk about replication and replicators doesn’t help us to understand those processes.

The Mind of Dan Dennett

Finally, I should say a word or two about Dennett’s conceptual style, which I address in a relatively early post, “Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!”, and in an appendix: “Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks.”

Thinking about little things, memes, moving back and forth among big things, brains, is relatively easy. Thinking about how certain properties of things and procsses, memes, play a certain role in human thinking and communicating, that is somewhat more difficult.

That one conception is more tractable than the other does not in itself have any bearing on which one, if either, is true. But it might explain why the easy conception has been explored extensively, to no deep consensus, while the other has received little attention. For memetics has always had the aura of a “magic silver bullet” solution to the problems of understanding and explaining culture and, for that matter, the human mind.

For that reason I think it important to look carefully at how those concepts work. That’s what I do in those two posts about Dennett’s mind. Dennett’s words have mislead a a relatively large number of people to believe a shallow conception of culture and cultural processes. In examining Dennett’s mind, we’re examining the mind of many in an intellectual generation, a generation whose time has come and gone.

  • Daniel H. Cole

    I’ve enjoyed reading these posts about problems in Dennett’s conception of memes. Although I don’t claim to understand all of the nuances of your arguments, I have been struck by their relatively personal nature. It’s “the trouble with Dan Dennett,” not “the trouble with Dan Dennett’s conception of memes.” It’s always problems with Dennett, rather than problems with specific arguments he makes about memes. What is it about Dennett, rather than his ideas, that seems to rub you the wrong way?

    On the merits, might it be that “memes” is simply a convenient place-holder for the product of a process (or set of processes) that brain scientists do not yet understand?

    Dan Cole

  • http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/ Bill Benzon

    “It’s always problems with Dennett, rather than problems with specific arguments he makes about memes.”

    Well, it’s not as though I don’t critize his ideas. I do, at length and in detail. If my title contains the phrase “the Trouble with Dan Dennett” rather than “the Trouble with Dennett’s Conception of Memetics,” that’s because the first phrase is shorter. That much is a matter of verbal convencience. If I were preparing these notes for formal academic publication, obviously I wouldn’t be so informal.

    Beyond that, I think that Dennett is coasting. He simply does not display a very rich and detailed knowledge of cultural phenomena. His examples are always casual and lacking in detail. In the one case where he does provide some detail, words, he skips over a critical point about words–that the relationship between the signifier and the signified, to use Saussure’s terms, is an arbitrary one. That is covered in any introductory course on linguistics or semiotics and has profound implications for any account of language processes. It would be one thing if he discussed that point, but decided that it’s implications are different from what I take them to be. But he doesn’t even bring it up.

    For all that he’s written about memes over the years, he gives no evidence of having thought about culture in any detail. He hasn’t done his homework.

    Now, you suggest that “it be that ‘memes’ is simply a convenient place-holder for the product of a process (or set of processes) that brain scientists do not yet understand.” First, I simply do not believe that to be the case and have argued so in my posts. Could I be wrong? Sure. But if Dennett wants to say that memes are things in brains of a kind not yet identified in neuroscience, he has to make an argument. He hasn’t done that.

    Eric Aunger, on the other hand, made just such an argument in The Electric Meme, a book which Dennett blurbed and which he has cited. The neuroscience in that book was flat-out incompetent, embarassingly so, a point I argue at some length in an essay review, Colorless Green Homunculi. It’s not that the neuromemetic speculation was, well, speculation; I certainly have no problem with speculation. But there was much in there that was flat-out wrong and the speculation was often confused, incoherent and contradictory.

    That Aunger’s argument is incompetent does not, of course, imply that a competent argument cannot be made, a point I make in my review. But so far as I know, no one has made the attempt. I’m not holding my breath.

  • Helga Vierich

    I think the core of my own reservations about Dennett’s ideas, is right there – in the middle of your comment:

    “For all that he’s written about memes over the years, he gives no evidence of having thought about culture in any detail. He hasn’t done his homework.”

    I have become rather alarmed, in fact, at the news that he is apparently now giving talks and perhaps even writing a book, about “cultural evolution” – and so far, has not apparently read any work on the subject from anthropology at all. This is a sign of extremely limited scholarship.

    It is easier, perhaps, just to BE a big name and charge big fees to give talks than it is to actually do any more work. The thing is, Dennett is very bright and he’s very personable. He is the kind of guy who, if he were head of the army or the country, you’d feel confidence in. He is calm and funny, and sort of grandfatherly.

    Coasting? Snoozing on his laurels, is my take, and yet still awake enough to try to take your head off if you call him on it.

  • http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/ Bill Benzon

    Agreed. He seems to be a nice guy. But when it comes to culture, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: [Dan] has not apparently read any work on the subject from anthropology at all. This is a sign of extremely limited scholarship. […]

    Er, what’s your source for this?!? Dan recommends and cites papers and books by anthropologists on the topic fairly regularly – and has been doing so for over a decade.

  • Helga Vierich

    As far as I can recall from various talks and books, he cites Napoleon Chagnon, sometimes, also, Richard Wrangham and William Irons, all authors who have adopted a sociobiological approach.

  • Tim Tyler

    I was thinking more of Boyd, Richerson and Sperber e.g. see “From Typo to Thinko”. Dan regularly recommends people read “Not By Genes Alone”. It seems unfair to say he hasn’t read what anthropologists have to say.

  • Helga Vierich

    I like Sperber. I like Richardson, and Boyd. But this and the other few scattered people he mentions are not discussed in the context of culture theory at all. In fact he really does not even go into their ideas in much detail. So you think I am being harsh in suggesting he is lax not to have tackled Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture or indeed any of the hundreds of other books and articles on the specific subject of cultural evolution? Perhaps. But I am getting fed up by the pseudo anthropology that people from other fields dabble in to produce popular books. If Dennett were serious about looking at culture he would tackle the idea, at least, of what it means to have “super-organic” systems interacting in the evolution of our species. He would not try to build verbal scaffolding from such rough and inadequate material as this half-baked “meme” analogy. He talks about it as though it was some kind of mental virus. If he were even to pay some attention to how whole systems of explanation work in organizing the perception and cognition of the real world, as Kuhn the philosopher of science did when he wrote on the structure of scientific revolutions, it would be more interesting than this drivel about memes.

  • Tim Tyler

    Boyd and Richerson didn’t like the idea of culture as “super-organic” – and I agree with them. Memes are the genes of cultural symbionts – and in many cases, yes, the symbionts are like viruses in a number of ways. In particular they are free-moving organisms that rely on another organism to provide the copying machinery which they need to reproduce.

    Memes are not just ideas in people’s heads. Internet memes, for instance are on the internet. There is a school of memetics that does hold that memes are ideas in people’s heads – but don’t muddle that idea up with the field itself.

    The idea I would defend is that memes are composed of heritable information (to be contrasted with the things they produce). Heritable information is also what makes up genes and genomes in the organic realm. In both cases, talk of dependent and independent variables isn’t entirely appropriate (since genotypes and phenotypes get entangled during development) – but yes, there’s an important sense in which the genotype/memotype acts as the program from which the phenes/products are manufactured.

    FWIW, memes are not best seen as an “analogy”. Nor are they “half-baked”.

  • Helga Vierich

    Well, baked or not, they do not “produce” culture They are produced BY culture, or perhaps one might say, either generated within a given culture or borrowed from another. But they are not instrumental in being “templates” in quite the same way as genes direct the organization of an organism.

    That was all I meant by saying that ideas or “memes” are “dependant variables”.

  • Tim Tyler

    Memes produce their products (cultural phenotypes) in culture in essentially the same way that genes produce their products (organic phenotypes) in organic evolution. In both cases you can argue that the phenotypes do play a role in producing the genotypes, but a lot of the causal influences go the other way. The memes/genes are inherited, wile the phenes are not. That means that – in a lot of ways – they are causal dead ends.

    There’s a lot of template-based inheritance in cultural evolution – for instance whenever anything is copied by a computer. However there’s a lot of *non*-template based inheritance in the organic realm. Organisms inherit their homes, their stress levels, their nutrient status and their locations from their parents. *If* you want to argue that inheritance without templates is a problem for memes, the same argument applies to genes, since inheritance without templates is ubiquitous in biology. That leaves memes and genes in a symmetrical position in this regard.

  • Helga Vierich

    Cultural phenotypes? That is certainly creative. But, um, it seems to me, having thought over what you have written here, that you are focussing on the idea of a replicant. Certainly no one can deny that parents and other members of whatever culture a person is born within often communicate the ideas within that culture to the child.

    Cultures are not just a bunch of memes thrown together in a sort of patchwork quilt… cultures are highly integrated systems of human behaviour and thought. They consist of three main aspects, given in term of their weight in terms of pushing other parts of the system arround. The heavy end is called resource extraction and all the technology (from sharpened sticks to offshore oil drilling platforms) that go with it, along with all the skills and co-ordinated behaviour of human groups engaged in the activity. The getting of resources, their transport and processing and eventual consumption and discarding of waste, all together constitute the material economy that supplies food, medicine, shelter, clothing, toys, musical instruments, and all the other debris we like to call our material culture. This is the part of a culture that is MOST subject to change and innovation, the effects of which reverberate through the rest of the cultural system.

    Thus changes in technology and economic activity often meet resistence from the second “tier” of culture, which consists of social institutions. These regulate reproduction of the work force, the transmission of the skills needed, the consumption of things, the behaviour governing trade and access to both the “natural” resources and participation in all the human activities along the way to the ultimate deposition of end products into dumps and latrines. These institutions include courtship, marriage, education, age grade initiation groups, social interest groups, and any systems of leadership and teaching to facilitate learning and make important decisions concerning the organization of activities. These institutions tend to be resistent to rapid transformation, which is probably a good thing, because not ALL new technologies and economic practices result in patterns of resource use that are sustainable.

    But the most conservative and resistant aspect of cultural systems are the ideologies – the ideas peoiple think with, which serve to rationalize the kinds of activities and interactions that individual humans within their cultures must engage in frequently during the course of most days. There are sets of ideas about how things ought to be done (rules) and why (moral codes), as well as notions about cause and effect (magical, practical, philosophical, scientific) which variously rationalize why things work the way they do.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I see the usefulness of the concept of the “meme” within this final category of culture- the realm of ideas and rationalizing concepts (explanations of cause and effect relationships).

    As such, they will more often be the most conservative elements of a culture, the mental locus, under conditions of rapid cultural change, of “cognitive dissonance” and ultimately “conversion” into other memes through a process that may be largely unconscious and involuntary… like the experiences of scientists undergoing paradigm change during scientific revolutions.

    Of course, change does not always come from the economic and technological base: if any of the elements, from ideological systems all the way down to basic technology, is not well integrated with the whole, it gives rise to conflicts of varying intensity that can lead to culture change. So there is some small scope for the possibility of revolutionary ideas.

    There is a good deal of evidence that most human cultures tended to change very slowly and were highly optimized in terms of long term sustainability based on the technologies and economy of hunting and gathering before about 12,000 BC. Since then, things have speeded up, due mostly to the braking system being removed from the reproduction line. As a result, often of rising ratios of population to resources, the rate of cultural change, including collapse and extinction, has accelerated considerably.

    Cultures are transmission vehicles for vast amounts of information. They are, in some sense, replicators, with characteristic responses to evolutionary pressures. So the idea of a culture being a kind of phenotype created by its memes is very interesting indeed.

    There are however some issues with the direction of the causal arrows, in my opinion.

    Here are some facts about what cultural system are, as distinct form the biological aspect of human populations:

    1) Cultures are not identical with interbreeding biological populations or “gene pools”.

    2) There are often whole collections of smaller, even occasionally somewhat endogamous, biological communities within a any given culture.

    3) Cultural systems can have a nearly complete turn over of genetic constituents over the course of a few generations and still be the same cultural system. In a cultural system it would not be too astonishing to find that only 10% of the people living within a current culture are biologically related to (or descendants of) the people who were in that culture 100 years ago.

    4) There is also a constant “gene flow” between different cultural groups, varying greatly with circumstances, but still of significance over the long evolutionary history of any culture.

    5) Some cultural systems are more successful than others in the competition for national resources, control of trade routes, attracting investment, attracting new members, and spreading “memes” into other cultures.

    6) The concept of inclusive fitness can apply to biological gene sharing groupings within cultures, but the concept is not applicable to entire cultures. This is because inclusive fitness is based on the favouring of close kin. In all human cultures there is often exact and conscious awareness of degree of biological kinship relations, but in terms of offering altruistic aid, kinship often is of, at best, equal significance to friendship based on nonbiological relationships.

    (Aside: This is not to minimize the importance of kinship in human culture at all, only to suggest that its role has been expanded and indeed, in evolutionary terms, been pressed into the service of cultural adaptation in a way that we do not see in any other animal. Within groups of social animals like elephants, whales, red deer, horses, wolves, macaques, baboons, and chimps, there is always a kin connection to the structure of the group. Leadership within such groups is not just a function of individual strength or intimidation but also of how big and supportive an individual’s kin group is.

    The kin group in humans, unlike that of chimps, includes both the fathers and the mothers AND it includes “in-laws” (affinity) as well as “blood” kin (consanginity). In humans, therefore we see a correspondingly complex set of strategies of the “in-group” for the beneficial placement of it’s descendants. It is within these local “genepools” that one can talk of “inclusive fitness” in a meaningful way.

    And of course, we all know that large (and therefore successful in terms of Darwinian fitness) kin-groups can straddle cultural boundaries. Inclusive fitness is far more appropriate when the concept is applied to particular kin groups within a culture, -and across cultural lines.

    Once you have a disconnect between the success of particular genes and their deployment within a cultural system, or systems, it is not possible to speak of inclusive fitness in terms of entire cultures.)

    So how can selection pressure operate on a culture? What has led to the diversity of cultures we see around the world? Taking up the question of cultural evolution, then, we see we are dealing with something that is not fundamentally inherited biologically. It is learned. It is shared. Each individual can have a unique mix of cultural information, but this makes for useful diversity within each culture; upon which the selective forces that cause cultures to change and evolve, can act. It is in addressing the replication and internal flow of this diversity that the concept of “memes’ could be really useful.

    You can have genocide, but this is not always the same as the extinction of a culture. You also kill a language without either genocide or changing other aspects of the culture. If, for instance, a culture changes from using one language to using another – both the culture and the biological group may be the same as before but for this one thing… as has happened in the history of the world many times. So culture is not identical with language and is learned by a different brain “system”.

    We know that a child raised past a certain age without exposure to any form of language will never be able to speak. Can a human child raised without exposure to a culture be expected to act on “instinctive behavioural norms” ?

    I don’t think so. I think that it is the ease of acquiring both language and culture that represents the major “instinctual” behavioural norms in our species. I do not think that there is any “instinctively based” behavioural norm that falls outside of this cultural box, aside from suckling in infants, blinking in strong light, raising the hands to ward off a blow, and the need for a certain amount of sleep.

    When it comes to reactions to threats from large dangerous animals, fire of snakes, mathematical reasoning, falling in love, mating behaviour and so on… I think most of the time people use their cultural norms to think with.

    They have a hard time thinking outside of the cultural box they were raised in. It is likely that in the past, most people have grown up straddling, as it were, the boundary between two or more different cultures. So this might give a human being a wider range of boxes to think with.

    It might even be that if you have learned, not one, but two -or more- different “normal” ways of thinking and behaving, you might be more innovative in thinking of some third or forth way of solving a particular problem.

    Experiencing frustration, anger, fear, pain, love and jealousy, and the drive for acceptance and companionship within a social group, and also the drive to compete for access to resources (which is what rank is all about in most species) are ALL normal in most social creatures. I don’t feel I am climbing out on any unscientific limbs here.

    But all of these could have existed in earlier humans WITHOUT LANGUAGE AND CULTURE AT THE MODREN LEVEL OF COMPLEXITY. Indeed, they undoubtedly did exist just so in early hominids.

    Our own modern species, however, evolved both language and culture to an extraordinary level, well beyond the communication and learned group behaviours we see in apes. elephants, whales, or any other social creature. What was the selection pressure driving this?  

    Ecological constraints, in particular the way human cultures have dealt with resource deprivation, offers some interesting insights. I suggest, in looking at the ethnographic evidence for indications of some species-wide behavioural responses, we need not worry so much about our instincts as if they were separate from our cultures.

    This means that we will see consistent responses but proportionate to the options available to the people in each case.

    We can look at the various cases where resources have failed to meet demand or actually declined due to environmental change. We can see conscious attempts to limit population in some cultures, not in all. We can see the development of kin-based food security systems (like the redistributive chiefdoms) in some, but not all. We see warfare of varying intensity in some, but not all.

    A lot seems to depend on whether people had options to leave the area and find food, water, or shelter elsewhere. On islands like New Guinea or Tikopia, the situation was difficult to escape, and led to institutionalization of infanticide, permanent barring of marriage to younger sons, use of coitus interruptous, and cycles of warfare.

    Among most sedentary fishing or horticultural peoples, this constellation of practices can vary from place to place. The association of high frequencies of intra-cultural hostilities with female infanticide has been postulated, and this would certainly brake population increase in two ways – by direct reduction in the number of woman having children across the whole region, and by increase male mortality due to increased raiding caused by turning women into scarce resources within the culture.

    The cultural responses seem to be effective long term strategies designed to perpetuate the culture – even if at times the biological agents of that culture might find it so stressful that they die younger than they might have, had they lived in another culture, or if they could have escaped into any other more peaceful cultural system that presented itself!

    A cultural system that finds a way of dealing with declining resources without constant civil war might enjoy greater popularity – and attract more migrants – than a culture that succumbed to this kind of solution. Insofar as human beings are in themselves resources, a cultural system might benefit from this; however in some cases, more people coming in only make things worse in a situation of dwindling resources. So one might interpret cases where immigration is generally discouraged as cases of cultural response to resource scarcity.

    Modern states can simply discourage immigration or impose severe limits to it, as have Japan and New Zealand. But tribal societies achieved the same thing by shooting at all trespassers and by severely mutilating captives. The general glorification of violent behaviour such as Chagnon reported among the Yanomami are a case in point. Tales illustrating the ferocity of a particular tribe also serve to warn off intruders and discourage attempts to attack them and take their land. It is an example of “primitive public relations”

    There is no quibbling about the capacity of cultures developing systems of belief that lead to wholesale slaughter of some portion of the population on just about any pretext. Being a German was not enough in Hitler’s Germany if you were gay, Marxist, Gypsy, or Jew. Being Chinese was not good enough in the China of Mao Tse Tung – you also had to be free of any taint of upper class relations, higher education, merchant ancestry, or even traditional tribal families of high rank. People have been eliminated for being the wrong colour, the wrong religion, the wrong political leanings, the wrong level of education, and even for just being in the wrong place.

    The ethnographic and archaeological evidence for mobile hunter-gatherers does not support the hypothesis that there was any ongoing pattern of institutional violence. I have lived with a hunter-group, and can attest that human emotions can still run high, and tensions over the choices of mates can be explosive, especially among the younger individuals. So violence is not absent, it just is not often about territory or food resources. It is more likely to be about love and loyalties. It is likely to fall into the category we call “murder” and “assault” than warfare or raids.

    “War” is a cultural adaptation, the ideas justifying the making of war are, therefore, “memes” that have arisen and found acceptance in cultures subject to periodic competition under conditions of ring ratios of population to resources.

    We spend a million years becoming human on the African savanna as a species whose special adaptive system is culture. However thai does not mean humans are adapted to living in African Savanna.

    It means humans are adapted to living within a culture.

    There are a number of statements made here so far on culture as a replicator group system possibly subject to selection. Well, good. But if we are to look at “memes” as analogous to genes we are going to have to take on the whole issue of epi-phenomena. We have epigenetic… we also need epi=memetics.

    In understanding epigenetic adaptation, the key for me was to consider that OTHER genes are also part of the environment where a gene competes. This is a point often forgotten I think. We tend to think of the environment only as the world outside of the organism. But from the genes point of view, it is everything outside the gene itself.

    I think this a good point to consider. Especially when you add that for humans, the environment of each each meme is not just the whole memome, but the complete cultural environment at affects how that meme is expressed (or not) from the moment of introduction into the mind.

    But there has been a lot of talk about altruism. As you may be aware, the fact that altruism is useful in leading to cooperative and coordinated behaviour between humans, even humans from different cultural groups, is in almost direct contrast to models suggesting that humans have strong in-group vs out-group sentiments, leading to internal loyalty and hostility if not actual aggression directed against outsiders.

    That is perhaps a topic for another day. However, the fact is that genes supporting cooperation and mutual support beyond the immediate kin group do appear to have been selected for in humans, and for a very very long time. So have “memes” – in that all hunter-gathjerer groups show a fierce intolerance of selfishness, hoarding, injustice, lying, and betrayal. I have suggested that this is a result of intense selective pressures favouring groups that had high levels of generalized reciprocity (sharing without tit-for-tat accounting) both in food distribution and in other kinds of aid, including the sharing of territories.

    Others have suggested the same. I am not sure whether we are in fact all talking about the same thing when we speak of culture as s replicator subject to natural selection. In any event, the entire cultural system in humans, consisting of thousands of inter-relating cultures which exchange goods, personnel, ideas (“memes”), technology, and access to vital resources, appeasers to me to be profoundly evolutionary in a way different than that of biological systems.

  • Helga Vierich

    Example of a modern “memeplex” that needs to be jettisoned soon : http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2013/11/425697.shtml

  • Tim Tyler

    I wouldn’t argue that culture is a bunch of memes. Culture consists of memes *and* meme products – in my view.

    Boyd, Richerson, Mesoudi, Durham, Aunger and others argue for what they call and “ideational” conception of culture – in which culture is composed of information – and is, essentially, a bunch of memes. However, that isn’t my own view – e.g. see my “On informational culture” article.

    Memes underlie *all* culture. They aren’t confined to ideologies, but also underlie social institutions, technology, creative arts, innovation, conventions, religion, etc.

    Of course cultures are not identical to “gene pools”. They have their own “meme pools”.

    You seem to play down the concept of kin selection as applied to culture. However, kin selection applies to memes in just the same way that it applies to genes. For example, catholics help other catholics partly due to shared memes. How can my printer and my computer cooperate? The answer involves the fact that they share memes. How do sports teams know how to cooperate with members of their own team? Shared memes. Cultural kin selection is basic to understanding cultural evolution.

    Regarding epimemetics, I wrote an article about epimemetics in October 2013, which you can read online. It will probably become an over-loaded term, just as happened with “epigenetics”.

    I’m pleased to hear that you regard culture in evolutionary terms. Cultural evolution is mostly the same as ordinary evolution – in that much the same theories apply in both realms. The alleged differences are much over-stated. The genuine differences, such as they are, are mostly concentrated in the “genetics/memetics” area. Alas, it is this area that has caused people the most conceptual problems historically.