The complexities of cultural evolution

cultural evolutionCultural evolution is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, even though, unfortunately, we still struggle to come up with a coherent — and testable — theory of how culture evolves. These days the word “evolution” is used in direct analogy with biological evolution, and particularly Darwinian processes, but it is far from clear if, and to what extent, cultural evolution is really analogous to its biological counterpart.

In a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine Online I take on this topic by way of analyzing a carefully written paper by Alberto Acerbi and Alex Mesoudi, published in Biology and Philosophy, which attempts to clear the air from a lot of confusion in the field of Darwinian cultural evolution.

Acerbi and Mesoudi make clear what the problem is: “Cultural evolution studies are characterized by the notion that culture evolves according to broadly Darwinian principles. Yet how far the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution should be pushed is open to debate.” The bulk of their paper is an attempt to contribute to that debate by clearing up a lot of confusion that has arisen in the field when people talk about specific mechanisms of cultural evolution, and in particular the difference between cultural selection and cultural “attraction.”

Cultural selection is “a process of selection between different variants (e.g. beliefs, ideas or artefacts) or models (referring to people from whom one can copy).” The alternative is a situation in which “the permanence of some cultural traits occurs not due to high fidelity cultural transmission but instead due to the existence of stable ‘cultural attractors.’”

One of the issues I discuss in my commentary is that of what, exactly, counts as “Darwinian” evolution. “Darwinian” is a specific modifier of “evolution,” so we cannot simply equate Darwinism with evolution. Evolution, in the broadest sense possible, simply means change over time. As in the universe has changed since the Big Bang. But that is not a theory of mechanisms, it’s a neutral description. Life also evolved in that general sense of the term, but if that were all that Darwin said we wouldn’t have a science of evolutionary biology.

I summarize and discuss Richard Lewontin’s famous formal definition of Darwinism, and find that the concept has difficulties being applied to culture because we so far lack a crucial component of biological evolutionary theory: some sort of functional ecology of cultural traits, something that allows us to predict the “fitness” of a trait independently of the empirical observation of whether the trait does or does not thrive in a population. Without this independent assessment of fitness, evolutionary theory reduces to a tautology: it predicts that the fittest will be the one who survive, and defines the fittest as the one who have, in fact, survived.

Ultimately, it is still very much an open question whether we can develop a coherent Darwinian theory of cultural evolution, or whether it may be better to abandon the analogy with biological evolution and recognize that culture is a significantly different enough beast to deserve its own theory and explanatory framework. Of course, cultural evolution is still tied to biological evolution, for the simple reason that we are both cultural and biological creatures. But we may have a long way to go before untangling the two and arriving at a satisfactory explanation of how precisely they are related to each other.

P.S.: one of the authors of the article I commented on, Alberto Acerbi, did a nice and constructive commentary of my TPM essay, here.

110 thoughts on “The complexities of cultural evolution

  1. brodix

    Socratic,

    The debate over Hitler and Nazism gives a fine example of how complex situations tend to melt down into more elemental, usually binary forms. So I do tend to see complexity as part of a cycle of increasing/expanding complexity, due to dynamic input, that then tends to overwhelm the fine structure and break back down.

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  2. brodix

    So there is the essentially the forward dynamic of the energy, moving onto future configurations, but its feedback creates cyclical effects to the forms being manifest.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    ej,

    “why bother imposing a biological model on an already rich field of study and scholarship? History provides its own models. Why not pay attention to these?”

    That is a good question in itself. I have often wondered why people have gotten into this mania of applying Darwinism to everything, from Dennett’s “universal acid” to cultural evolution to Smolin’s cosmic natural selection (which I argued at length, back at Rationally Speaking, is also hopelessly confused). Must be a manifestation of the obsessive search for simple, unifying explanations of everything, which to me is a refusal to admit that science isn’t a unified pursuit, but rather requires pluralism of explanations.

    DM,

    “My only axe to grind is this idea that there is something problematic about the statement being a tautology. You explain how the tautology problem is avoided by appealing to independent measures of fitness. I, on the other hand, don’t think there is a problem in the first place.”

    If evolutionary theory were true by means of a logical fiat (like all tautologies), either evolutionary biology wouldn’t be a science (it would be a branch of logic), or it would have managed a feat that not even physics has accomplished: arriving at a priori, purely logical necessary truths about nature. I don’t think it has.

    Your comment of mathematics should make this clear: yes, all mathematics is tautological, and theoretical mathematics — pace Coel — is no science. It can be applied to science, obviously, but it needs empirical input, otherwise it cannot pinpoint the one actual world from the infinite number of logically coherent possible ones.

    “on this independent measure of fitness question, I wonder could you elaborate”

    Natural selection can be measured in the field, by assessing the covariance between certain traits (say, photosynthetic rate) and reproductive fitness, in a given environment. One then builds models that allow one to predict how variation in the focal trait affect fitness as a function of environmental variation. One can also bring in “engineering” considerations, by deploying knowledge of established physiology, anatomy and ecology to predict which variants will do better in which environments. All of this generates empirically testable predictions, thus making evobio a science and not a branch of logic.

    “It seems to me that the independent measures of fitness we have in evobio are little more than plausible post hoc explanations of what we see not so different from the kind of thing we see in evopysch”

    Glad you brought that up. No. That’s precisely the problem with evopsych: they are usually not in a position to do the above, for the simple reason that humans don’t live anymore in evolutionarily relevant environments, so that even when one measures fitness components in modern humans (which is possible) one cannot relate them to Pleistocene conditions, because we don’t live in the Pleistocene anymore. (This is usually not a problem for other species if one reasonably assumes that their current environment isn’t that different from past ones.)

    Coel,

    “your statement there seems inconsistent with your OP where you asked for “something that allows us to define the “fitness” of a trait independently of the empirical observation of whether the trait does or does not thrive in a population””

    I now see a possible source for the misunderstanding: that phrase should have said “to *predict* [not define] the fitness of a trait…” Maybe this, and my response to DM above clarify things?

    david,

    “The model for changes in population frequency of the different strategy types could as easily be applied to cultural or genetic transmission models”

    Game theoretical models usually do not incorporate anything about inheritance. They are good at predicting which “strategy” (or phenotype, or behavior) should be favored given (usually extremely simplified) assumptions about the environment. But those strategies can be achieved by learning processes, for instance, rather than by genetic selection. If so, they wouldn’t be Darwinian, as they would either bypass inheritance or the relevant notion of “inheritance” wouldn’t be the Darwinian one.

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  4. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    Thanks for that, very interesting.

    > If evolutionary theory were true by means of a logical fiat (like all tautologies), either evolutionary biology wouldn’t be a science

    Well, no, because evolutionary theory would still be concerned with the details of how heredity, variation, and so on play out in the case of earth biology. It’s the general substrate-neutral principle of natural selection leading to increased “fitness” that is logically entailed, not the details of how or whether it can apply to earth biology.

    An analogy in physics might be to Noether’s theorem, which being a mathematical theorem is also a tautology. It tells us about how nature behaves, but only given certain preconditions. Natural selection is like that. It is logically entailed given certain preconditions. Evolutionary biology as a whole is not tautological, but SotF is like a very concise theorem which happens to apply in the case of earth biology (and genetic algorithms, and, arguably culture) just as Noether’s theorem happens to apply to the conservation of electric charge and momentum and so on. At least that’s how I see it.

    > theoretical mathematics — pace Coel — is no science. It can be applied to science, obviously, but it needs empirical input

    Agreed.

    > all of this generates empirically testable predictions, thus making evobio a science and not a branch of logic.

    Agreed.

    Which is why I’m talking about the very generic description of how Darwinian evolution works in the abstract rather than how it applies in any particular substrate or environment (biology, genetic algorithms, culture). That’s where you need the empirical input. So I see the basic idea of Darwinism as akin to theorems in theoretical physics — an abstract tautological idea which can and has been very successfully applied to biological science.

    I’ll accept your distinction between evobio and evopsych. It seems to be a good one and a fair point.

    Your sketch of how to make predictions in evobio is very interesting. I still don’t think these measures of fitness are really independent of fitness as survival/reproduction, seeing as they are derived from observations of same, but I will certainly grant that there is a basis for making solid predictions.

    But I don’t see how one could not apply similar methodology to memes (e.g. a chain letter). We could measure the rate of reproduction of chain letters which mention rewards versus punishments versus no consequences as a function of various environmental factors, e.g. the literacy level of the population or the cost of retransmission, and make the same sort of predictions you’re talking about. We can bring in engineering considerations too, perhaps well-written letters might spread better than letters with poor English and misspellings.

    I think the difference is that you can very clearly measure what genes are present in a population or organism but there are no such discrete units in the case of memes or cultural entities. That makes it a whole lot less rigorous, obviously, but to me at least it still seems like similar processes are at work.

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  5. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    I now see a possible source for the misunderstanding: that phrase should have said “to *predict* [not define] the fitness of a trait…”

    Yes, that does clarify. Also, I agree with most of what you said about “fitness” in your comments just now. Let’s see how close to agreement we are:

    (1) There is nothing tautological about the concept “fitness”. Fitness means traits that lead to survival and reproduction. We can study those traits, exactly as you say above.

    For example, we can measure a trait such as beak size in a finch, and correlate that with reproductive success. As you say, that is science and not logic.

    (2) Given the definition of “fitness”, the specific phrase “survival of the fittest” is tautological. But it is only that one specific phrase that is tautological; the concept of “fitness” is not.

    (3) Darwinian theory overall, including the concept of “fitness”, and as summarised in Lewontin’s three principles, is not in any way tautological. (Again, the only thing that is tautological is that specific and misleading phrase SotF, which is not part of the statement of Darwinian theory, and which it would have been far better had Spencer never said!)

    As an analogy, suppose someone came along and commented on Einsteinian relativity, saying: “relativity says that things that travel at the speed of light travel at the speed of light”. That’s a logical tautology. Yet, that is not problem for the theory, since it is not a statement of the theory.

    If we simply regard the specific statement SotF in that same way, as a redundant commentary, then the whole issue is dealt with.

    How close are we to agreement now?

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  6. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, that’s only the surface of what’s wrong with Ev Psych. It’s also presented no reason why the EEA is to be considered as an evolutionarily special period in human history, for example. And, it has some sexist grounding, mainly man (the male) as “noble” hunter gatherer, when he was a scavenger gatherer for long before that.

    Re Dennett, he is soooo off base, IMO.

    First, while it might be possible that the “variation by natural selection” portion of biological evolution is algorithmic, random variation by genetic drift is not. It’s by definition stochastic. Even the natural selection part is really only algorithmic per particular environments doing the “winnowing.”

    Second, speaking of environment, environments have all sorts of massively contingent events.

    Third, per this discussion, since cultural evolution is non-Darwinian, there’s no “universal acid” involved.

    Fourth, after that book, about all Dennett has done since is recycle his Darwinian one-note band, recycle old ideas on free will, insulted religious believers by promulgating the “brights” idea (DOWN, Coel, we’ve been through this before; he may not have invented the word, but he very much did promulgate it), and become a Gnu in general, albeit not the worst of them. Oh, and per the free will issue, even though his associate, Daniel Wegner, at BU, pointed out, in essence, that if there is no “Cartesian meaner,” then there’s also really no “Cartesian free willer” (with which I agree, of course), Dennett’s never followed up on that.

    Would you like any other thoughts about Dennett? 🙂

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  7. Massimo Post author

    Socratic,

    I’ll answer further DM and Coel later on. While I agree with most of your points, please let’s keep the sarcasm to a minimum. Again, I’d like this to be a robust but respectful forum. (This, of course, doesn’t go just for you.)

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  8. SocraticGadfly

    No worries, Massimo. Remember, I’m practicing healthy living! (And, Monsieur Dennett wasn’t on the thread, so I thought I had more sarcasm latitude. Want me to invite him? 🙂 )

    At the same time, the “sooo” or whatever might be sarcastic aside, he is that much off base, in my honest view. And, he’s done that little of new writing, in my view.

    As for the parenthetical comment? Well, I’ll phrase it differently next time, should I anticipate the need for one.

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  9. brodix

    A thought on Hitler; necessarily he was, above all else, a masterful politician. Not to demean politicians in general, but it might be worth thinking of them as athletes, in the sense that they have to be instinctively tuned into the present moment and the balancing required to build and sustain momentum.
    This necessarily requires some strong instinctive confidence in one’s own power and that really can most effectively be described as spiritual. Not even necessarily theistic, as that would be a form of reflection and questioning of self confidence. As a theistic person will pray, or thank their God, as though it were separate, but someone actively, effectively physically engaged doesn’t have the time for that level of reflection. So all this reverse engineering of culture and the dynamics motivating it is very useful for understanding and building on lessons to be learned, but it does add layers of interpretation which may not apply.
    So rather than just build from received sources, deeply examine how your own body and world interacts and how you might use and become one with your tools, be it a pen, computer, or a hammer, as an extension and reflection of yourself and how then they feed back and further define who you are. Than consider yourself as a politician and your tool is your ability to influence others and they are both extensions of yourself and the material you are working with. Some of it to be honed and refined, some to be passed over and some to be actively discarded. Now Hitler was an extreme example, but all leaders of people are going to go through variations of this.
    Then as a person studying this, how you will instinctively do the same with information. Some honed and some discarded.
    Nature simply does away with the middleman, as point of focus. It’s just non-linear content and context interacting.

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  10. Philosopher Eric

    I’m of the opinion that the natural sciences won’t much help us predict cultural dynamics, and certainly not through the presented sort of Darwinian evolution. Our fads, for example, should be far too different from biological organisms. Thus I’ll check the “No” box for each, as I think most here have. Furthermore the humanities have also not taught us much about cultural dynamics, I think, because that simply isn’t their business. If anything they incite rather than explain our behavior.

    If we want to better understand cultural dynamics, it’s surely instead our mental and behavioral sciences that must improve. The greatest cause for their troubles, I think, is that they do not yet attempt to understand the conscious entity’s ultimate motivation, or what’s good/bad for it in the end. Why? Perhaps because the only answer which seems valid, happens to be “happiness.” This stance advocates selfishness, even though our own selfishness does ironically make us not want others to behave selfishly. Thus apparently we find it too immoral to permit psychology to acknowledge an ultimate happiness motivation, leaving such fields quite primitive. Natural sciences simply won’t fix the problems associated with our woeful mental/behavioral sciences.

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  11. Mark Sloan

    Massimo, thanks for pointing out our agreement that: Darwinian evolution is usefully understood as substrate neutral, the issue with ‘cultural evolution’ is with conceptual utility, and “morality evolved as an instinct that facilitates prosocial behavior”.

    Reciprocating, I share your concern with cultural evolution’s vagueness in definitions of the units of selection, fitness, and the mathematics that defines cultural evolution in a comparable way to either biological evolution or the evolutionary design of antennas and electronic visual cortexes.

    Where I expect we still differ is my expectation that the diverse, contradictory, and bizarre data set of all known past and present cultural moral norms (norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment) provides perhaps the best data set available for testing hypotheses about cultural evolution’s units of selection, definitions of fitness, and mathematics.

    Any hypothesis about units of selection, fitness, and the mathematics that explains all of this diverse, contradictory, and bizarre data should be inherently robust.

    Up until this discussion, the only useful product of my understanding cultural norms as the products of evolutionary processes was identifying the primary selection force for cultural moral norms – the benefits of cooperation in groups. It had not occurred to me that, due to having established the data set’s primary selection force and the data set’s diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness, it could be particularly useful for testing hypotheses about cultural evolution’s units of selection, definitions of fitness, and mathematics.

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  12. Mark Sloan

    SocraticGadfly, thank you for your comments here and elsewhere!

    Good point about Protagoras having the same insight that I have said is almost impossible unless one understands moral behaviors as the products of biological and cultural evolution. (The part of the Protagoras/Socrates exchange relevant to this discussion is that Protagoras described to Socrates how moral behaviors are cooperation strategies using the myth about how and why Zeus gave all people a moral sense. Socrates rejected this understanding of morality, perhaps because it was too commonplace?)

    However, what was obvious to Protagoras and to the common people who were familiar with the myth is definitely not obvious to modern people, and certainly not post Platonic moral philosophers. So I should have said that an evolutionary understanding of moral norms is almost required for modern people to have this insight. What changed between ancient people’s understanding of morality and modern people’s?

    This stark shift in understanding is one additional bit of data that must be explained by the hypothesis that the primary selection force for moral norms is the benefits of cooperation. It actually explains this shift nicely.

    Prior to the invention of money economies, cooperation (aside from inefficient barter and limited kin altruism) was essentially dependent on moral reputation. Cooperation was central to group survival and hence moral behavior was a vital daily part of life, making its function, increasing the benefits of cooperation, much more obvious than it is now.

    But money economies can be fantastically more efficient means of cooperation than dependence on moral reputation and thus muddy the water concerning morality’s function. Relying on moral reputation to maintain cooperation can become almost irrelevant in a money economy. Hence, we can easily explain modern people’s lack of insight into moral behavior.

    SocraticGadfly I noted that ‘cultural lubricants are PART of the development of morality. For all know, to riff on Steve Gould, some moral beliefs may well be “spandrels.”
    Also, a serious and non-trivial observation. Cultural evolution is about far more than morals.)

    I have been looking for “spandrels”, moral norms that are not elements of cooperation strategies, in past and present moral codes for the past 12 years or so. With some guidance from game theory, essentially all past and present moral norms are fairly easily revealed to be elements of cooperation strategies. The bizarre ones are usually marker strategies for membership in and commitment to an in-group. Contradictory norms are usually either different definitions of in-groups and out-groups or different marker strategies.

    Only one spandrel candidate comes to mind at the moment. That is an extreme form of female genital mutilation when enforced as a moral norm – meaning violators deserve punishment. But that is it. Suggestions for other candidate past or present moral norms that are not elements of cooperation strategies are always welcome.

    Yes, “Cultural evolution is about far more than morals.” But as I described in my reply to Massimo, the data set of known past and present moral norms (with their known primary selection force) may provide a singularly effective data set for testing hypotheses about cultural norm units of selection, fitness definition, and mathematical descriptions of change processes.

    You also said Using something I mentioned an essay or two back, the Priestly Code. Specifically,the dietary prohibitions. …None of them arguably increased in-group fitness…. In other cases, biological evolution directly undercuts moral norms.

    Moral behaviors are cooperation strategies selected for by the benefits of cooperation where a “benefit” can be material goods or psychological goods – really whatever people perceive as a benefit of cooperation. Remember that for cultural norms, people are the ones doing the selecting and their selections may have nothing to do with biological reproductive fitness. And just as we should expect, and as you point out, many do not.

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  13. brodix

    Mark,

    The problem with money economies, is that money functions as an economic contract, essentially a voucher system, but we treat it as a commodity, because individually we perceive it as one.
    Which encourages the overproduction of money, which is anathema to a voucher system, as the pain of prior episodes is lost.
    Possibly one lesson to consider is that after the next blow up, rather than have these enormous amounts of excess capital being supported by enormous public debt, it could be threatened to be taxed back out of the system and not simply borrowed. As most people save for very predictable reasons; housing, child rearing, eduction, healthcare, retirement, etc, communities could invest directly into these needs, rather than try storing this wealth as an enormous abstraction. Consequently wealth would be stored within the bonds of a community and presumably its environment, creating a stronger community and public spaces, rather than everyone trying to extract as much as possible for their own atomized needs. Only to be siphoned off by a corrupted financial system.

    We treat money as both medium of exchange and store of value, while in the body, the medium is blood, while the abstract store of value is fat. Getting them mixed up causes trouble. There are practical limits on how much can be stored.

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  14. Massimo Post author

    DM,

    “An analogy in physics might be to Noether’s theorem, which being a mathematical theorem is also a tautology”

    It is, but my understanding is that it is applicable to certain kinds of system and not others (like dissipative ones, which require additional conditions). That’s like the principle of natural selection: as stated by Lewontin it is a logical truth, whether and how it applies depends on the details of heredity, selection mechanisms, and so forth. Which is why I’m convinced it applies to biological systems, not so much (or at best partially) to cultural ones.

    “I still don’t think these measures of fitness are really independent of fitness as survival/reproduction”

    They are not independent, indeed they are identical: the issue is the trait under selection and its functional connection to fitness. If one were simply to say that natural selection always increases fitness one would be making a pretty empty statement. (Except that even that’s more complicated than one may think, but let’s not get into multiple loci population genetics theory.)

    ” I don’t see how one could not apply similar methodology to memes”

    Because so far there is no functional ecological theory of memes, or of ideas.

    Coel,

    you are getting closer, but:

    “If we simply regard the specific statement SotF in that same way, as a redundant commentary, then the whole issue is dealt with.”

    I don’t know where you get the idea that it is a “commentary,” but it isn’t. It’s the expression of a worry, that IF one does not flesh out the functional ecology of the traits under selection THEN one is left with a tautology and only a tautology.

    Mark,

    “data set of all known past and present cultural moral norms (norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment) provides perhaps the best data set available for testing hypotheses about cultural evolution’s units of selection, definitions of fitness, and mathematics”

    That may be, but somebody’s got to do the hard work of making sense of them.

    “With some guidance from game theory, essentially all past and present moral norms are fairly easily revealed to be elements of cooperation strategies”

    I think that’s a bold claim that doesn’t square with the bewildering variety of moral norms. At the very least I’d like to see such analyses. And of course it also depends on cooperation with whom: xenophobia is broadly considered immoral these days, but it surely does foster cooperation within a given group. And I’m not sure where I would put the morality of worshiping a god, for instance. (Yes, I know, “in-group signals,” but, again, I’d like to see the details of the calculations, and the assumptions that go into them, and a good account of the tradeoff between in-group and broader-group cooperation.)

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  15. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    We do you care so much about the phrase “survival of the fittest” that you need to find some way in which it is non-tautological?

    The SEP entry on “fitness” ends with: “As these debates suggest, far from being merely a 19th century slogan, understanding the meaning of the “survival of the fittest” is of philosophical and biological urgency.”

    Both philosophical and biological urgency? Wow! And yet, the entire problem is a non-problem, created only by the desire to rescue the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Abandon that one phrase, and the whole problem evaporates in an instant.

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  16. SocraticGadfly

    Mark, per the last graf on the second comment on this page, I agree that a “benefit” need not be a material benefit. Or, an immediate immaterial benefit can lead to a future material one.

    But, IMO, cultural norms still may not be beneficial.

    They can be spandrels.

    Or, per a modern quasi-musical term, they can be earworms.

    The cargo cults of Pacific Islands come immediately to mind.

    What then happens, of course, is that jerry-rigged add-ons are created to control the original version of the new random cultural variation. I don’t things like this increase either in-group fitness of individual members, or outgroup fitness of this group vs another group.

    Cargo cults don’t punish members within a group vis-a-vis others, and they don’t consciously punish one group vs. another, but they do unconsciously punish one group vs. another.

    Gimme more time, and I’m sure I can think of other things.

    Or, here’s another: The Pacific Northwest’s potlatches.

    Unless group cohesion is more beneficial to the group than loss of individuals’ property, it’s not a benefit. And, it’s arguably less a benefit than addressing the accumulating drive that leads to such possessions in the first place — if it’s possible to do so.

    Also, on spandrels, let’s not forget that Gould never said spandrels were permanently useless, either. He only indicated that they, like actual physical spandrels (before decoration) were “useless” (but necessary byproducts of other events).

    Spandrels, of course, happen in purely biological evolution.

    Let’s assume, because I don’t know exactly where the evolutionary biology on this stands, that blue eyes co-evolved with loss of melanin among northern peoples. Blue eyes are, themselves of no evolutionary value. (Nor is blond hair, contra some ev psychers). But, a multi-genic issue like skin color might have part of its genes also control for eye color.

    Anyway, I think in general, given the non-Darwinian nature of cultural evolution, “earworm” is a better term than “spandrel.” Massimo, feel free to pass it around the academic hallways.

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  17. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    > It is, but my understanding is that it is applicable to certain kinds of system and not others (like dissipative ones, which require additional conditions). That’s like the principle of natural selection:

    Exactly. That’s my point. The basic principles of natural selection are logically entailed in the abstract. I never said evolutionary biology itself was a tautology or a branch of logic or mathematics. Perhaps we have converged.

    > Because so far there is no functional ecological theory of memes, or of ideas.

    Maybe not robustly, no. But I think we have a wishy-washy intuitive appreciation of how ideas compete and replicate and combine and so on. Again, I’m not arguing for memetics as science. I’m just arguing that something akin to Darwinian evolution is at play, but not necessarily in a way we could ever study rigorously.

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  18. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Socratic,

    > even Dawkins himself has pretty much ditched the idea of memes. His one-time acolyte on this issue, Susan Blackmore, did so long ago.

    How so? What do you mean by “pretty much ditched”? Have they said they are a bad idea? Or have they just lost interest in pursuing memes as a topic?

    For myself, I just think they are a neat, insightful idea, and that it’s a good way of expressing something true about how ideas spread. Don’t mistake me as an advocate for a science of memetics. I suspect it’s the latter that Blackmore and Dawkins have ditched (if anything).

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  19. SocraticGadfly

    DM, ‘pretty much” as in done zero touting. I don’t think he’s formally fully abandoned every bit, but, his silence speaks volumes.

    I think memes are a “neat” idea myself, But many “neat” ideas in my world aren’t insightful, nor are they correct.

    And, given that memes were presented as a scientific idea (albeit “in utero,” perhaps), if the “science of mimetics” is ditched, what’s left? The art of mimetics? That’s not meant as sarcasm, just a straight observation. Memes were presented as a scientific idea.

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  20. Robin Herbert

    Here is how Richard Dawkins used to refer to memes, from an end note from a later edition of “The Selfish Gene”

    “(3) … memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically

    DNA is a self-replicating piece of hardware. Each piece has a particular structure, which is different from rival pieces of DNA. If memes in brains are analogous to genes they must be self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neurological wiring-up that reconsititute themselves in one brain after another. I had always felt uneasy spelling this out aloud, because we know far less about brains than about genes, and are therefore necessarily vague about what such a brain structure might actually be. So I was relieved to receive very recently a very interesting paper by Juan Delius of the University of Konstanz in Germany. Unlike me, Delius doesn’t have to feel apologetic, because he is a distinguished brain scientist whereas I am not a brain scientist at all. I am delighted, therefore, that he is bold enough to ram home the point by actually publishing a detailed picture of what the neuronal hardware of a meme might look like. Among the other interesting things he does is to explore, far more searchingly than I had done, the analogy of memes with parasites; to be more precise, with the spectrum of which malignant parasites are one extreme, benign `symbionts’ the other extreme. I am particularly keen on this approach because of my own interest in `extended phenotypic’ effects of parasitic genes on host behaviour (see Chapter 13 of this book and in particular chapter 12 of The Extended Phenotype). Delius, by the way, emphasizes the clear separation between memes and their (‘phenotypic’) effects. And he reiterates the importance of coadapted meme-complexes, in which memes are selected for their mutual compatibility.

    I am pretty sure that the idea of a meme as an actual pattern of neurological wiring up has died out. I would need to check if this end note is in the latest editions of the book.

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  21. brodix

    Maybe if we thought in terms of waves propagating, rather than particles replicating, memes would be more comprehensible.

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  22. brodix

    Then again, that might explain why culture is difficult to model as Darwinism, since Darwin is premised on the replication of entities, while culture propagates.

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  23. davidlduffy

    “Game theoretical models usually do not incorporate anything about inheritance…”, but the example I gave did precisely this. I have not seen a proof that the simple inheritance model used in that paper would lead to the Price-Robertson equation, say, but would suspect it does.

    I would see the desire to apply the apparatus of population genetics to cultural transmission comes from two sides: 1) the hope that the generation of novelty and complexity in human culture is somehow comprehensible and even orderly, like economics 😉 ; 2) from the path analysis of the 60’s where it was necessary to include cultural transmission (gene-culture interaction and covariation) paths to allow genetic modelling of complex biomedical traits within families (not the general community per se).

    As to possible relevant measures of fitness for cultural variables, I am co-author on at least one paper (Kirk et al 2000 in Evolution) where we estimated reproductive fitness for religious affiliations: Catholics were fitter as one might imagine…

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  24. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Right, so it seems to me there are two ideas here.

    1. We can get some insight into how culture evolves by considering that certain ideas have features which encourage or discourage their own spreading, leading to selection effects akin to natural selection. I think this is right.

    2. We can develop a science of cultural evolution/memetics as rigorous as that of biological evolution. I think this is false. Cultural evolution is too complex, too dependent on individual actors and historical events. There is no clearly identifiable unit of reproduction. The best we could do is work it a little into the softer sociological sciences.

    But I think (1) is enough for the idea of Darwinian cultural evolution to have some value.

    @Robin:

    > I am pretty sure that the idea of a meme as an actual pattern of neurological wiring up has died out.

    I don’t doubt that it has! Every brain is too different for the meme-pattern to be readily identifiable.

    @Socratic

    > if the “science of mimetics” is ditched, what’s left? The art of mimetics?

    No, just the informal idea. The “meme” of memetics. It doesn’t need to be further developed into a science. The idea as originally conceived is enough.

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  25. brodix

    Waves propagate through a more complex medium and thoughts are basic forms that rapidly transmit through the vastly more complex neurological medium. Culture and memes being more thought patterns, than specific structures, with interactions similar to choppiness of waves in multipolar situations.

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  26. Philip Thrift

    Philosopher Eric says, “I’m of the opinion that the natural sciences won’t much help us predict cultural dynamics, and certainly not through the presented sort of Darwinian evolution.”

    That leaves the “artificial” sciences (e.g., computer science) then! 🙂

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