Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology

Terminology is important, and pesky. I am in need of at least two terms, terms for which I have a technical use. I also dislike coining new terms. I would much prefer to use existing terms, even if it requires a bit of refitting here and there. Here are three proposals, the first of which is familiar to you, followed by brief discussions of each:

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.


This is the same old meme, more or less: the cultural analog to the biological gene. When I originally started thinking about culture as evolving through a process of random variation and selective retention, as the phrase goes, I was unaware of Dawkins’s term. I was considering various terms, I forget what they were, and learned about Dawkins’s meme in the process of discussing terminological possibilities.

Once I’d learned that Dawkins had already coined a term that (seemed to) fit my bill, and that was in use, it was a no-brainer. I adopted it. Had I known just how much half-baked memetic thinking there was, well, I most likely would have adopted the term anyhow.

It’s a good term and no one who reads more than a little of my work is going to mistake me for a memetics. I’m not. I just happen to share a word with them.

As I’ve now said many times, I see memes as observable properties of objects, events, and things. Not the objects, events, and things themselves, just certain of their properties. Which properties? The ones that are culturally active. The memetic properties are thus those on the emic side of the emic/etic distinction used in anthropology (and derived from the distinction between phonemics and phonetics that linguists have made).

I thus assume that objects, events, and things that are not active in some given culture. Those properties are on the etic side of the emic/etic distinction. Why aren’t they culturally active? Perhaps they’re not observable. Or they may be observable by simply not culturally active.

[Note: Now that I think of it, it’s probably not accurate to imply that the properties of objects, events, and things can be divided into two exclusive classes. It’s more like the emic properties are of a different order. But that’s a discussion I’ll have to shelve for now.]


If memes are properties, then there has to be something in which those properties inhere. The memes of spoken language inhere in a sound wave while the memes of written language inhere in visual symbols. The memes of music inhere in sound as well. When music is notated, the written notation generally does not fully represent the memetic properties of musical sound.

The memes of a spoked wheel inhere in the wood, metal, and other material components of the wheel. Some of the memes have to do with the shape and arrangement of the parts. The identity of the physical materials is also likely to be memetically active. It’s important that the rim is made of iron rather than copper and that the spokes are made of, say, ash rather than pine.

I’d first thought of using “locus” in this conceptual slot. But “locus” used in genetics and I fear using it in this context is likely to be confusing. Substrate seems to be a good word for that.

Note however, that the meme/substrate distinction IS NOT the old form/substance distinction but to a more specific use. As I’ve pointed out in the case of the spoked wheel, the substance (e.g. iron vs. copper) of the substrate can be memetically active.


What do we call the cultural analogs of biological phenotypes? Given that I believe that those things take place in minds, why not draw on the standard mental terminology: ideas, thoughts, perceptions, desires, etc.? I see two problems with this. For one, it would be nice to have a single term that denotes all of them, whether they’re ideas or perceptions or whatever else. Further more, there’s no reason to think that everything in the mind has the status of cultural phenotype. What about the mind of a neonate?

No, I think we need a term. I like “ideotype” for this slot. To be sure, the term is in use, but not widespread use, nor do I see existing uses as causing harmful or confusing cross-talk.

The word itself seems very well-suited to this usage. The morphology is parallel to biological usage, “phenotype” and “ideotype”, while the prefix, “ideo-”, couldn’t be better as it directly implies the mental realm.

* * * * *

So: Cultural evolution is a process of random variation among memes and selective retention of ideotypes through the collective mental processes of a social group.

12 thoughts on “Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology”

  1. I simulate cultural evolution but choose to skip the meme concept. For the spoked wheel, is it the idea of the wheel, the wheel itself, the manufacturing techniques, the spokes, the wood, the use? Which one is the meme or are they all different memes? Because its infinitely divisible, even only the culturally active ones, its unclear if you can use the concept in the same directly heritable way that genes are (Kroeber discussed this in the pre-meme days). On the other hand we know culture is inherited, so something is transmitted even if we don’t name the specific element.

  2. There’s no evidence that anything is “infinitely divisible” – let alone memes. Information is highly divisible. However that applies equally to information which is transmitted organically as well as culturally. If someone claims that they have 1/1000 of a bit of information about some cultural phenomenon, one can just reply with an example of 1/1000 of a bit of information about some DNA-transmitted phenomenon.

  3. Good questions, Colin: First, we have the wheel, its use, and the techniques of manufacture. In my proposed terminology, NONE of them are memes. Rather, they’re all substrates for memes. The fabrication memes, it seems to me, would necessarily include the wheel memes as a subset. (On the fabrication of a spoked wheel, see this classic piece by Fred Cloak (PDF)). And the use memes would also include the wheel memes as a subset, or at least some of them. But the fabrication memes and the use memes would otherwise be unrelated. The memes themselves, as I say, are observable properties that are culturally active.

    On infinite divisibility, as a philosophical matter I tend to think of objects has have unbounded numbers of properties (cf. this post where I talk of objects as “wells of abundance”). Only some of those properties will be memetically active. And when you consider objects which, for one reason or another, are apprehended by people bearing different cultures, those people are likely to engage with different properties of the objects.

    The most obvious example is spoken language. If you don’t speak Mandarin, for example, then spoken Mandarin is going to sound different for you than it would for a speaker. You hear the same sound stream, but can’t pick up on the syllables. Or consider a bidet. If you’ve never seen much less used one, it’s a somewhat puzzling contraption. Between its general shape and the fact that it’s located in a washroom you have some idea, but it’s still a bit puzzling. You can’t quite figure out its functional affordances (to borrow a term of JJ Gibson).

    As for direct inheritance, that DOES seem iffy, but I’m not terribly worried about that, not at the moment¬–that is to say, “go away, don’t bother me now, I’ve got more important things to worry about.” So, I’m a skilled wheelwright. You come to me with a chariot with a demolished right wheel and you want me to fabricate a new one. I’ve never made a wheel quite like it, say, it’s got 21 spokes and I’ve never made a wheel with 21 spokes, and it’s got some fancy inlay around the rim and, though I’ve done plenty of inlay in my time, never quite THAT design. Still the chariot’s left wheel is in good shape. So I use that as a model and fabricate a duplicate. I suppose we could say that the duplicate inherited the 21-spokes meme from the model, but that does seem a bit strained. At the moment that doesn’t seem worth worrying about.

  4. Right, I should have read that twice. But in the wheel example, what is the meme then? The wheel pieces are the substrate, the mental conception of the wheel is an ideotype (right?), so is it the wheel-related observable behaviours (within a cultural group) that are memes? Still seems fuzzy.

    Tim, I agree, I meant infinitely in the figurative sense. You’re right that information is highly divisible, cultural and genetic. So why do we not discuss culturally inheritable information rather than use the meme concept? We don’t expect to be able to identify one “information” the way we expect to identify one gene (or loci/allele more accurately).

  5. “Still seems fuzzy.”

    It is. But I don’t want to force it. At bottom there’s a philosophical issue, the old tug-of-war between idealism and realism. Does an object have property X is there isn’t an observer around to see property X?

    In the case of memes, of course, I am defining them as observer-dependent properties, or seem to be doing so. That in term implies that there must be something in the observer’s mind/brain to pick up on, to perceive, those properties. Once I’ve said that, well then, at least some folks have a very strong desire to assert that that thing that’s in the observer’s mind/brain, THAT’s the meme. That’s the step I want to avoid.

    It’s not that I want to avoid positing the existence of that thing that’s in the observer’s mind/brain. Not at all. I’m very interested in it, whatever, however, it is. It’s just not the meme. Rather, it belongs to the ideotype. It’s the meme that anchors, if you will, the ideotype in the external world.

    So, here we’ve got the wheel out there in the world, what Kant called the thing in itself. It’s a substrate.

    And it has various properties. It’s got a geometry, a piece count, and a connectivity structure (that is, how the pieces fit together) and properties under compression and tension, and other properties as well. Shape, piece count, and connectivity structure are, in my view, memetic properties. In order to recognize, use, and fabricate wheels we need “stuff in our heads” that “latches on” to those properties. Still, the properties are one thing; the “stuff in the head” is another.

    The same is true of compressive and tensile properties. Those are the properties that allow the wheel to maintain its integrity under load and therefore to function. It’s easy to fabricate something that has the appropriate shape, etc., but that collapses under load. That’s not a proper wheel. But what’s the “stuff in our heads” that allows us to latch on to those properties? On the one hand there is our collective experience with wheels: we know that these wheels work whereas those other ones didn’t. The one’s that work seem to have a characteristic heft, feel, texture, absolute size, whatever, all properties of the substrate that tell us that, when properly worked, this wheel will function.

    I should also note that information talk makes me nervous. In discussions like this, where one talks of culturally transmitted information. I get the sense an underlying notion of pushing bits through a tube. The nature of the tube doesn’t matter; its size, shape, substance, all irrelevant. All thats matters is the bits.

    Well, a signal can be said to contain information only with respect to system that can read and write that information. Talk about information that floats free of somewhat detailed consideration of the mechanisms for reading and writing can quickly become empty. I say more about this in Culture Memes Information WTF!.

  6. Colin, “meme” is shorthand. It’s convenient to be able to talk about meme pools, memetic drift, memetic engineering, memetic hitchhiking, meme expression, phylomemetics, the meme’s eye view, etc. The other terminology that has been proposed seems long-winded and inferior by comparison.

    It’s true that some people are confused about memes – but that’s just because they never learned about them properly. As problems go, that one is easily rectified.

  7. As well as excluding memes from minds, you confine meme phenotypes to minds. That won’t do. The absolutely standard story in cultural evolution is that human knives act as cultural equivalent of claws, human graters act as the cultural equivalent of teeth, human snorkels act as the cultural equivalent of a trunk, human aeroplanes act as the cultural equivalent of wings – and so on. However, in your proposed scheme, these artifacts all play the role of genotypes, since phenotypes are defined as existing inside minds. In my opinion, this won’t do – the proposal is a straightforwardly inferior scheme. The idea’s deficiencies explain its poor adoption record. Please revisit the scheme laid out in G. C. Williams’ book “Domains, Levels and Challenges” – it makes a lot more sense.

  8. “However, in your proposed scheme, these artifacts all play the role of
    genotypes, since phenotypes are defined as existing inside minds.”

    No. They are the physical substrates for memes just as DNA molecules are the physical substrate for genes. In biology all genes are realized in that same substrate. In culture, memes are realized in a wide variety of substrates.

  9. I don’t like the term “substrate” in the sense used above at all, because it carries all sorts of room for confusion. In historical linguistics and cultural anthropology, “substrate” refers to a socio-economically inferior culture in a community, usually the more indigeneous of two cultures in a community, that provides a background influence on the “superstrate” culture and its language which tends to replace the substrate language and culture subject to substrate influences.

    A term like “locus” or “context” conveys the notion of a medium into which memes are embedded just as well.

  10. I’ll think about it. For one thing, language isn’t the only medium in which memes occur. They occur in the visual arts, the whole world of constructed artifacts, music, and so forth. Nor is it obvious to me that the historical linguistics usage would cause much interference in the case of language. “Context” doesn’t convey a strong sense of underlying medium. “Locus” is a bit better, but it’s more suggestive of a point region in space than a medium.

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