Why Cultural Evolution Needs a Distinction Between “Genes” and “Phenotypes”

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I’m thinking I’m about to burn out on cultural evolution, so this will be relatively short and informal.

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Ever since I began thinking about a Darwinian process for cultural evolution back in the mid-1990s I’ve insisted on making a distinction between phenotypic entities (which I’m now calling “phantasms”) and genotypic entities (which I’m now calling “coordinators”). Why? My basic reason was to preserve the analogy between the cultural evolutionary process and biological.

That’s understandable, and it was a reasonable thing to do – back then. But there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether or not such a distinction needs to be made for cultural evolution, and if so: how do we make it? Some thinkers, like Dennett and Blackmore don’t make such a distinction at all, being content to theorize about memes, which are thus more like viruses than genes. To be sure, they’ve not gotten very far, nor for that matter has anyone else. But still, the issue must be faced, for there needs to be a better reason for such a distinction than the mere logic of analogy.

After all, what if the underlying logic of cultural evolution is different from that of biological evolution? What if there is no distinction comparable to the genotype-phenotype distinction?

My contention is that there is such a distinction and I’m now prepared to offer a reason for it:

Culture resides in people’s minds and the mind is in the head. We cannot read one another’s minds.

The environment to which cultural entities must adapt is the collective human mind. That’s been clear to me for a long time. And, of course, various conceptions of collective minds have been around for a long time as well. The problem is to formulate a conception in contemporary terms, terms which admit of no mystification.

I did that in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) where I argued that when people make music together, and dance as well, their actions and perceptions are so closely coupled that we can think of a collective mind existing for the duration of that coupling. There are no mystical emanations engulfing the group. It’s all done through physical signals, electro-chemical signals inside brains, visual and auditory signals between individuals.

In this model the genetic elements of culture are the physical coordinators that support this interpersonal coupling. These coordinators are the properties of physical things – streams of sound, visual configurations, whatever – and as such are in the public sphere where everyone has access to them. Correspondingly, the phenotypic elements are the mental phantasms that arise within individual brains during the coupling. These phantasms are necessarily private though, in the case of music making, each person’s phantasm is coordinated with those of others.

If those phantasms are pleasurable ¬– I defined pleasure in terms of neural flow in chapter four of Beethoven’s Anvil – then people will be motivated to repeat the activity and those phantasms will thus be repeated. One of the factors that lead to pleasure is precisely the capacity to share the experience with others. The function of coordinators is to support the sharing of activities and experiences. Just as genes survive only if the phenotypes carrying them are able to reproduce, so coordinators survive only if they give rise to sharable phantasms.

Culture is sharable. That’s the point. If it weren’t sharable it couldn’t be able to function as a storehouse of knowledge and values.

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That, briefly and informally, is it. Obviously more needs to be done, a lot more. I can do some of it, though not now. But much of the heavy lifting is going to have to be done by people with technical skills that I don’t have.

5 thoughts on “Why Cultural Evolution Needs a Distinction Between “Genes” and “Phenotypes””

  1. The split between memotype and phenotype is pretty standard in memetics. Cloak (1975) and Dawkins (1982) both endorsed the concept. You cite Dennett and Blackmore as possible exceptions. However, Dennett (1998) writes:

    “Memes are supposed to be analogous to genes, the replicating entities of the cultural media, but they also have vehicles, or phenotypes; they are like not-so-naked genes. They are like viruses (Dawkins, 1993). As with viruses, there is a phenotype/genotype distinction, but just barely.”

    Blackmore (1999) argues against using the gene/phene split in cultural evolution. But this was because she believed the division was not “neat”. She later wrote:

    “I suggest there is no clean equivalent of the genotype/phenotype distinction in memetics because memes are a relatively new replicator and have not yet created for themselves this highly efficient kind of system. Instead there is a messy system in which information is copied all over the place by many different means.”

    Some memeticists even invented a term for the cultural phenotype. They called it the “phemotype”. I don’t much like this term, but like I say, cultural phenotypes are a long-established idea in memetics. This is really the point of the “meme” terminology: it divides culture neatly into what is inherited (memes) and what us not (meme products). Memes thus play the exact same role in cultural evolution that genes do in the organic realm – namely, they are bits of heritable information.

  2. “The split between memotype and phenotype is pretty standard in memetics.”

    Yes, it is. But it’s not universal and the “phenothype” is often little more than a bag for “memes.”

    “Some memeticists even invented a term for the cultural phenotype.”

    Coining terms is easy. Actually thinking about the problem is not so easy and memetics has been going in circles for three decades and has achieved nothing.

  3. Cultural evolution as a whole has been going slow for the last 150 years. Various factors are to blame. Resistance from establishment memes from within cultural anthropology has been one factor. Theorists in ivory castles surrounded by dense thickets of mathematics has been another problem. Conflicts and disagreements between the various researchers involved has helped to prevent cooperative teams forming. It looks as though we have some of that going on here. Criticism is certainly cheap and easy. However, my perspective on this is a bit different from yours:

    A lot of useful work has been done – and continues to be done – in the name of memes and memetics. The oft-repeated claim that memetics has not been productive is baloney. Memetics pioneered an understanding of symbiology in cultural evolution. It promoted the idea of “bad memes” in the face of adaptation-centred orthodoxy. It fought against DNA-centric sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. It’s pioneers also helped to create and promote the important topic of universal Darwinsim. Kin selection in cultural evolution has been pioneered largely by memeticists. Memes and memetics have been the public face of cultural evolution for decades. Now that many of these ideas are finally taking off in the scientific establishment and in popular culture, it is galling to see these decades of effort by multiple researchers being described as having “achieved nothing”. Dawkins helped to kickstart this whole snowball in 1976. Since then it has been accelerating and rolling much faster. I think you should give some credit where it’s due.

  4. “Memes and memetics have been the public face of cultural evolution for decades. Now that many of these ideas are finally taking off in the scientific establishment and in popular culture, it is galling to see these decades of effort by multiple researchers being described as having “achieved nothing”. Dawkins helped to kickstart this whole snowball in 1976. Since then it has been accelerating and rolling much faster. I think you should give some credit where it’s due.”

    Nonsense. You talk as though no one knew much of anything about culture and then along comes memetics and new worlds of understanding have opened up. I’m afraid not. Lots of work on culture has been done in the standard disciplines. Memetics comes along, pretty much ignores that work, but acts like it’s got something new. Alas, for the most part it doesn’t. Sure, Cloak did a nice piece of work with the wheel and Dawkins coined a term. He also realized that, if we’re going to talk about genuinely cultural evolution, then we’ve got to talk of cultural entities that receive the benefit of evolutionary dynamics. But he hasn’t been able to make a coherent theory out of that insight and no one else has done so either. What I don’t see in the memetics literature is a fine-grained analysis of cultural phenomena. There’s little in memetics comparable to the study of anatomy and physiology in biology, much less anything comparable to molecular biology. Memeticists do not have a decent descriptive handle on cultural phenomena.

    In short, if memetics is about culture, well then memeticists don’t know what they’re talking about. Hence, memetics has accomplished nothing.

    Perhaps one reason cultural evolution hasn’t gotten very far is BECAUSE memetics has been the “public face of cultural evolution.” No one’s been tempted to go beyond that public face because, you know, you memeticists talk like you’ve got it all figured out, except perhaps for a detail or two. So people are content with that public face and don’t look for more. And memeticists don’t look for more because they don’t want to and don’t know how.

    Stop asking for credit and start doing some real thinking.

  5. A fundamental idea in memetics is that cultural evolution and organic evolution are more similar than you might think. Early in organic evolution, organisms were basically little more that bags of cooperating genes. Early in cultural evolution there was a similar situation – cultural phenotypes were not very spectacular. However, now things have moved on a little. These days, cultural phenotypes prominently include skyscrapers, ships, factories, cars and spacecraft. There are obvious developmental programs – often computer programs – that map from heritable information to “products” – structures that are not copied, cannot be copied or where copying is legally prohibited. Anyone who thinks of cultural phenotypes as being “bags of memes” is probably stuck back in the cultural equivalent of the stone age somewhere. These days, meme products – or cultural phenotypes, vehicles or interactors – are having a huge and obvious effect on the environment.

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