Social Evolution Forum
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Progress, Memes, and Cultural Evolution

As the readers of this blog know, one of the central directions in my research has been understanding the evolution of large-scale, complex societies. Actually, it is the main question motivating this Forum.

Now that I am back from my travels, I have shifted gears and started working on my long-neglected popular book that will explain my current thinking of how we humans made the transition from living in small-scale societies integrated by face-to-face interactions to modern anonymous societies of millions (tens, hundreds of millions) individuals. Right now I am struggling with trying to explain why this question is best answered within the framework of Cultural Evolution. Let me run this logic by you, readers, and I hope that you can provide feedback on whether it makes sense – or not.

First, what is ‘cultural evolution’? There is a lot of misunderstanding of this discipline, even among the scientists. Evolutionary studies of the society have been called a variety of names: Sociocultural Evolution, Social Evolution, Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and even Social Darwinism (the last one is now a thoroughly discredited theory, which was used especially in the late nineteenth century to justify racism, imperialism, Nazism, and a number of other unpleasant ideologies).

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To many social scientists (including, most notably, social anthropologists), sociocultural evolution implies some kind of a theory of social progress, which often assumes that human societies pass through a set of well-defined stages. For example, one of the earliest proponents of sociocultural evolution, the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan (1818–1881), proposed that societies develop through three stages: from ‘savagery’ to ‘barbarism’ and finally to ‘civilization.’

Others proposed more sophisticated schemes, but the majority of anthropologists today are united in their rejection of such ‘stadial’ theories of social evolution (and rightly so).

Equating evolutionism with fixed stages is a very puzzling approach for evolutionary scientists, like me, whose training was in biological evolution. Biologists have long ago converged on a standard definition of biological evolution. Simply enough, it’s the study of how and why frequencies of genes change with time. This definition doesn’t imply that there has to be any kind of progress. ‘Progress’ (however defined) may result from changes in genetic frequencies, but it is equally possible to have regress, or long periods of stasis. Paleontological data show that different lineages in the animal and plant kingdoms can follow all kinds of evolutionary trajectories.

Similarly, nothing prevents us from defining cultural evolution as the study of how and why the frequencies of cultural traits change with time. Whether there is progress, or whether societies pass through defined stages becomes an empirical question.

This is the approach that was followed in the pioneering work by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson. During the three decades since the publication of their seminal book in 1985, an initially small research group of Rob and Pete together with their graduate students expanded into a vibrant and internationally recognized scientific discipline.Two years ago we had a defining conference in Frankfurt, where Cultural Evolution came of age. When I say ‘Cultural Evolution’, I mean specifically this particular discipline.

What are, then, ‘cultural traits’? Culture is understood very broadly—as any kind of socially transmitted information. Thus, information about edible berries and mushrooms that parents and other older, wiser people transmit to youngsters—that’s part of culture. Culture also includes knowledge of how to make tools, stories and songs, dance and rituals, and also ‘norms’—socially transmitted rules of behavior. Basically, any kind of information that is passed between members of society is what we call culture.

A cultural trait is similar to a meme, a word coined by Richard Dawkins, which is typically explained as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins proposed that memes are cultural equivalents of genes—self-replicating units of cultural transmission. Cultural traits, however, are a more general category than memes, because they also include quantitative traits that cannot be easily represented as discrete alternatives (for example, an inclination to trust strangers, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog).

The process of transmitting cultural traits is also quite different from that of gene replication. It can occur simply by observing and imitation, or it may involve active teaching and perhaps even drilling, to make sure that a cultural form is transmitted faithfully. For example, Homer’s Iliad was transmitted orally through many generations of itinerant performers, before it was written down. Culture can also be transmitted by such media as paper (e.g., instruction manuals and, more generally, books) and computers. Such variable mechanisms of transmission, each with a different range of fidelities, is another reason why theorists working within the field of Cultural Evolution prefer speaking of cultural traits, rather than memes.

Cultural knowledge, thus, is in some ways analogous to genetically transmitted information, and in others quite different. A precise comparison is difficult because, while we understand very well how genetic information is encoded and transmitted, with cultural information we are on much shakier grounds. We know that knowledge is somehow encoded in the brain, but precisely how is still largely unknown.

While this is an annoying problem for cultural evolutionists, we can’t wait for brain scientists to provide us with the answers. We need to understand our societies so that we can make them more cooperative, more peaceful, and more wealthy. This means that we need to proceed now with the investigation of how societies and cultures evolve, while incorporating any new insights as they emerge from neurocognitive sciences. Remember that Darwin and first evolutionists were able to make a lot of progress with the study of biological evolution in the nineteenth century, before they had any understanding of how genetic information is encoded. Think of Cultural Evolution today as being at a similar stage of development as genetic evolution was before the Mendelian Revolution.

To be continued

53 Comments

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53 Comments

  1. Marvin says:

    Yup. Trust in strangers. Purely cultural, nothing genetic in it. Move along, nothing to see here. Otherwise you might get Nazi cooties or something.

    Until you (as in “people who try to find how human societies work and evolve”) get comfortable with the idea that evolution doesn’t stop at the neck you are forever going to add various epicycles to your wrongheaded theories.
    Sigh.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I never said that human behavioral traits are purely cultural. In fact, I happen to believe that human behavior is influenced by genetics, environment, and culture. But I don’t see how that is relevant to the issue at hand.

  2. Marvin says:

    Re-reading what I wrote “wrongheaded” is too strong of a word. There is a lot of value and insights in your thermodynamic/statistical mechanics theories that treat humans as interchangeable billiard balls. But they will forever be limited and require epicycles if you don’t add genetics and human evolution in the last 10000 years into account.

  3. Paul N. says:

    Neither memes nor cultural traits, the more abstract concept of fauceirs is appropriate here, which as a side effect would help to integrate genetics, environment etc. and for that purpose would (probably) satisfy Marvin even.

  4. Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    I agree with the notion that “cultural trait” is a broader term than “meme”. Nonetheless we lose some key meaning if we discard the term “meme” altogether.

    Sometimes we forget where the term “meme” was coined in the first place. Dawkins proposed memes not only as cultural traits (or replicators) but cultural traits (or replicators) that are capable of undergoing the “selfish replicator” dynamics analogously to selfish genes. The only feature that really changes is the mechanism of transmission or inheritance.

    As you point out, many times cultural traits are more similar to some sort of facilitated learning and, although they can be transmited and/or inherited, they are not likely to udergo a selfish replicator dynamic since it implies that a lot of recursive variation and selection must follow.

    Anyway, my point is that, specially since the time the Homo gender developed the ability of speech (not to mention writing, print, mass media and so forth), there are many important examples of cultural traits which are perfectly capable of undergoing such selfish dynamics and hence have an enormous impact on cultural and biological evolution. Many of those traits, like religious beliefs or constitutions, might be central to cliodynamics.

    Let “memes” be a relevant sub-class of cultural traits: the selfish cultural replicators.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I am not sure that selfish cultural replicators are a useful concept. I just can’t imagine memes jumping from one brain to another like viruses. It smacks a bit of something like demon possession…

      • tmtyler says:

        It’s a *lot* like demonic possession. However, the error is in thinking that this reflects poorly on memes. The fact is that our ancestors struggled with cultural infections associated with witchcraft. Indeed, witchcraft was given as an example of a deleterious cultural practice by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) – and that was certainly true in Salem at one point in history.

        These days, people talk more about “fanaticism” than “possession” and more about “deprogramming” than about “exorcisms” – but these ideas are broadly similar. Both “deprogramming” and “exorcisms” involve the use of ritual in the banishing of deleterious symbionts. This is best considered to be a case of practical wisdom in folk medicine. See the article titled “Memetics, demonology and possession” for more on this interesting topic.

        • Peter Turchin says:

          When I used “demonic” I was emphasizing not that is was deleterious, but that it’s imaginary. There are no memes jumping from head to head, really. Instead, people learn behaviors or acquire information from other people. By the process of learning or imitation. And how a peace of knowledge is encoded in your brain could be completely different from how it is encoded in my brain. A mental representation is not copied. I may copy your behavior, but it is represented in a completely different way in my brain.

          • tmtyler says:

            During cultural transmission, information is what is copied from one brain to another. By “copied” we mean that Shannon mutual information develops in the second brain as a result of a causal chain of events propagating from the first brain. The usual test to see if copying is involved is if you make a small change in the information in the sender/broadcaster and that change is reproduced in the recipient. Such copied cultural information is what many refer to when using the term “meme”.

            Information is portable and substrate neutral. You can copy a movie from a CD ROM to a SSD card. The representation is very different – but the information is exactly the same. To understand how culture can be copied from pages to minds and back to pages again, you have to forget about representations – and start thinking about information.

            When Dawkins (1976) wrote: “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain”, the “leaping” was only ever intended metaphorically. Memes don’t have legs. I don’t see how a literal interpretation could have been seriously entertained – except in the mind of an unselfcritical critic – as part of a straw man attack.

            Lastly, memes are not “imaginary”. Knots and many other artifacts transmit memes – and these are plainly not “imaginary”. Now that the internet is busy spilling internet memes from every orifice, I expect to see less of the nonsensical accusation that memes are “imaginary” or “don’t exist”.

      • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

        (By the way: When I wrote “cultural traits” what I was meaning was “Cultural variants”, from Boyd and Richerson´s Dual Inheritance Theory.)

        One of the problems with the term “meme” is that it immediately evokes the kind of “mind viruses”, or horizontally transmited toxic and contagious ideas, that are not the most important class of memes, or cultural variants as I see them.

        The most important cultural variants (and memes) through human History are the ones transmited vertically, from parents to offspring. For instance, Cavalli-Sforza explained that the expansión of agriculture was a demic expansión starting in the near east not the expansión of the innovative set of ideas alone. Memes and genes expanded together.

        The important feature of memes is that they undergo variation, differencial growth/success and further selection. In sum: they evolve. Their physical representation is irrelevant: they are phenotypic traits very much like mendelian genes.

        The idea of meme is useful even if it is simply because memes can evolve much faster than genes. Also because both are “selfish” replicators and because, of course, genes can coevolve with genes.

        I don´t find anything demonic about communication or imitation…

      • I can think of an example of possible virus-like phenomenon. I use a number of analogies to think of the collection of cultural traits labeled as capitalism. In particular I focus on how capitalism differs from economic systems that feature private enterprise and free markets but which were not capitalism. The distinguishing characteristic, as I see it, is the accumulation of capital. That is, capital must be deployed in ways that create more of it. Thus, reinvesting profits as needed to maintain the business while spending the rest on lavish living and patronage of the Arts (e.g. merchants in Renaissance Italy) is not the behavior of a capitalist. A susceptible person, once “infected” with a sufficient amount of capital (wealth), devotes his/her professional life to the replication of capital (wealth), much as a bacterium infected with phage devotes its metabolic machinery to the replication of phage.

        Thinking of capital like a virus is not the only way I look at capitalism, but it is an analogy I find useful at times.

  5. Martin Hulin says:

    I think Dan Sperber´s ideas on cultural evolution are highly relevant here (Explaining culture, 1996) as well as his critique of memes and his alternative he termed “cultural attraction”. Should not be omitted in any discussion of culture!

  6. PLEASE PLEASE avoid “memes.” The meme is not only unscientific, but anti-scientific–Dawkins’ slap in the face to the thousands of anthropologists, linguists and psychologists who have worked on these issues for 200 years and come up with very good understandings of how culture is transmitted. Memes not only do not exist, nothing like them exists, and the word is really seriously distracting attention from the actual data and theory on this.
    Otherwise, I agree; I know Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson and think the world of them–I agree with them pretty much 100%. They really know their stuff.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      At the risk of incurring the wrath of Mimeticists, I actually tend to agree with you. I am guilty of using ‘meme’ in an informal way once in while, where it seems like a reasonable short-hand term, but as far as understanding cultural evolution, on the whole, the concept of ‘meme’ has not been a useful one.

    • tmtyler says:

      Gene, that is a revisionist history. I reply in my article titled: “Were memes a slap in the face to anthropologists?”

    • Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

      Well, I know some prominent anthropologists, linguists and psychologists who are supporters of the meme concept. Robin Dunbar and Steven Pinker for example. As a matter of fact the concept of Boyd and Richerson´s Cultural Variants is extremely close to the concept of Memes, only broader, since Cultural Variants include beliefs, values, attitudes and ideas.

      I don´t see how attitudes or values can undergo variation, differencial success and selection, and therefore they cannot qualify as memes as defined by Dawkins. But there are some ideas that can: those ideas can be defined as memes. There is no need to be so troubled by that.

      “Meme” is only a useful concept. The concept of “Gene” is only a useful concept. I mean… not you, Gene. You are much more tan a concept… 😉

      • Peter Turchin says:

        I think ‘meme’ is a good metaphor, but not a good model. In my latest blog I discuss social trust. Is different attitudes towards generalized trust, ranging smoothly from always trust strangers to never trust strangers memes? A better term is cultural variants.

        • tmtyler says:

          “Meme” beats “cultural variant” on the internet about 17808:1 – with most of the hits being highly relevant. I think you have to consider yourself as promoting a minority position.

          What do you even mean by saying “meme” is “not a good model”? Are you thinking of some specific model? Do you have some specific criticism of it? You hint at the idea that some cultural traits range smoothly. Hair color changes smoothly – from blond to black. Would you similarly argue that hair color can’t be largely coded for by genes? Presumably not – since that would be a ridiculous position. Yet you seem happy to make the exact same argument when it comes to cultural traits being based on memes. Why do you think that this argument is coherent or defensible?

          In my book, “cultural variant” is a synonym of “meme” – so your concerns can’t possibly be technical – they can only be terminological.

  7. tmtyler says:

    Traits are different from genes, just as cultural traits should be considered to be different from memes. However, practically nobody argues that traits are more general than genes – and then concludes genes aren’t useful. That argument would be nonsensical: genes are heritable information, traits are the results of their expression. Similarly, cultural traits and memes are best treated as different names for different things: memes are the heritable cultural information, and cultural traits are the result of their expression.

    A closer synonym for meme within academia is “cultural variant”. However the term “meme” is better, shorter and massively more popular. It won, long, long ago.

  8. Mark Sloan says:

    Peter, I also am interested in how to most usefully understand cultural evolution. My focus is on the biological and cultural evolution of morality.

    In my view, becoming “civilized” is not about societies becoming “more cooperative, more peaceful, and more wealthy”. It is ONLY about advocating and enforcing strategies for sustainably obtaining the large benefits of cooperation while avoiding exploitation. This is also my definition of moral behaviors – cooperation strategies, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, that punish exploitation. Becoming “more peaceful and more wealthy” are just fallouts of becoming more cooperative (and more moral), not fundamental foundations of becoming civilized.

    Since direct and indirect reciprocity are applicable whether we already know the people we are interacting with or not, I don’t see that the necessity for the sharp demarcation you imply between civilized behavior among people who know each other and among people who do not know each other.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I am with you on the centrality of cooperation. Everything else flows from it. But we need to explain to non-specialists what we are talking about. Thus, peace and prosperity.

      As to the “sharp demarcation” – it’s much easier for a village to cooperate than a huge nation of 300 million. How we achieve the same level of cooperation as in a small-scale society is a big and yet unsolved problem – just witness how cooperation has been unraveling in Americ over the last 30-40 years.

      • Mark Sloan says:

        Yes, I agree.

        Of course, the most important mechanism by which people cooperate on large scales with people they do not know is by means of money economies operating under rule of law. Money economies operating under rule of law are fantastically more efficient for increasing cooperation than, say, reciprocity reliant on knowing the reputations of other people.

        That said, I would look for the motivating sources of the dysfunctional non-cooperation of the political parties in the US in the last 30 or 40 years in our ‘moral’ biology, specifically in our innate in-group “good”, out-group “bad” preferences.

        Understanding how to convince people to abandon the in-group “good”, out-group “bad” strategy in order to increase the overall benefits of cooperation is a worthy project.

    • I think I am confused by what “civilized” means technically. I thought “civilize” was the root for “civilization” as in “Rise of”, which is typically dated to around 3000 BCE. This period saw the rise of the earliest “state societies” characterized by social stratification and a specific ruler or body of rulers. In contrast, hunter-gather societies were organized at the “band” level and were characterized by the absence of social classes and rulers and a higher rate of interpersonal violence. So it would seem that to become “civilized” was to become more unequal, more exploitative and less violent.

      What is meant by the term here, and how is it different from the above?

  9. EdwardT says:

    gravity is still a good shorthand term for explaining why anything you drop hits the floor.

    moreover NASA does not use equations based on the curvature of spacetime to send probes to the moon or other planets. the wrong science does the job.

    of course, “meme” is wrong in many ways but it’s not going away because it is a thought-tool that helps people understand the world about them.

    one that is very suited to an age buzzing with highly-crafted concepts and ideas.

    that said, I don’t think anyone else will be able to build anything more intellectual on the meme. it’s here, the few basic approaches for using it have been found. WYSIWYG.

    what I find amazing about neuroscience is the experiments (from Benjamin Libet) that showed we make our decisions way before we think we do.

    link to youtube.com

    when we engage in a meme – for example, take part in a mexican wave at a 0 – 0 football game – who started it, why is everyone copying, and who makes the decision to store information about the behaviour?

    that said, free will is not going away either.

    is our creativity the sum of what is stored in our brains or more? if our output is nothing other than our input how do we come up with anything new? it cannot be just random because some people are better at it than others.

  10. Igor Demić says:

    A bit off topic, as usual 🙂 Hasn’t the time come for a serious encyclopedic account of sociocultural evolution? Popular books are important, but none encompasses the field in its entirety. I know the field is contentious and “unfinished”, and the encyclopedias are not what they used to be … in XVIII century, but one such thing could revolutionize the way broader science sees S-C evolutionary theory. This and related blogs gather many people from the field, maybe something could be agreed among them?
    I’m thinking something like The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, but even more serious….
    (When I say sociocultural evolution I think of a broader area, matching what Herbert Gintis’ calls sociobiology)

    • tmtyler says:

      At 480 pages the 2012 book “Culture Evolves” is as fat as an encyclopaedia. The 2013 book “Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion” comes in at 450 pages. IMO, we are doing quite well for large, serious books about cultural evolution lately.

      • Igor Demić says:

        I’m aware of those, but I was thinking more 1000 pages per volume … a number of volumes 🙂 Those are still “edited volumes”, “conference proceedings”, I was thinking something larger, also methodologically different. A real encyclopedia.

  11. Concom says:

    Perhaps it makes sense to emphasize at the beginning that evolution – is not a single process, but rather a bunch of interconnected processes, and that traits are of two fundamentally different types: absolute trait (one that can be measured for each individual regardless of others) and the relative trait (one that can only be measured by comparing individuals with each other).
    This can help readers avoid many misunderstandings of evolutionary processes. For example, genes – is the absolute trait of the individual, but memes – is a relative trait of a member of a group of individuals (as well as the cooperativeness / selfishness). Thus a direct analogy between genetic evolution and memetic evolution does not make much sense – it is fundamentally different (although related) processes.

    • tmtyler says:

      I prefer Herbert Spencer (1862):

      “there are not several kinds of Evolution having certain traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner”.

      “Evolution” is a fine term. It is best if it refers to the unified theory. We can still name the fragments by their domains – organic evolution, cultural evolution, enviromental evolution, chemical evolution, etc – without compromising the vision of a unified theory of evolution.

      • Concom says:

        Spencer was right, as a scholar of the late 19th century, when the idea of evolution took its very first steps.
        Today, evolution is a fact of common knowledge, so we can afford a more accurate understanding of the different types of evolutionary processes.
        I am somewhat concerned about the wave of meme over-enthusiasm, which uncritically borrows formal methods of population genetics. Moreover, the topic of memes has a strong political context, which together with the uncritical thinking creates a recipe for disaster similar to what happened with the Social Darwinism in the middle of the last century.

        • tmtyler says:

          Negative political consequences as a result of misunderstandings are a common reason cited for going slow with the Darwinism in the social sciences. However, ignorance and complete lack of understanding are surely the bigger enemies here. Some Darwinism is always going to be better than no Darwinism.

          There was no “Social Darwinism” disaster in the 20th century. Some folks picked on the Darwinism of their opponents as a means of portraying them as evil. However, Darwinism isn’t evil; and characterizing it as being so would be a significant problem – since that risks demonizing many scientists. I am a Social Darwinist – and proud of it. “Social Darwinism” should *definitely* not be a term of abuse. Nor should it refer to some lampooned, discredited movement. It would be awful to let opponents of Darwinism take away basic terms from scientists. Denigrating the object of the term “Social Darwinism” should be resisted on every front.

          As for “uncritically borrowing methods from population genetics” – that doesn’t seem to be a problem in practice: practically all of population genetics transfers directly across into population memetics, with *very* little friction or difficulties. Frequency analysis is the basis of most of it – and that is a cross-domain concept.

          Spencer wasn’t being “inaccurate”. Evolution’s basic principles are universal. Emphasizing that evolution is not a single process, but rather a bunch of interconnected processes risks missing this. Instead, I think it is currently important to emphasize the commonalities and shared basis – because these are a) important and b) not widely understood.

  12. Joe Brewer says:

    I find it puzzling that so many evolutionary and social researchers are quick to dismiss the meme concept (and its terminology), especially considering that it now attracts hundreds of researchers who engage in the study of coevolutionary processes in the unfolding dynamics of social ecosystems.

    Rather than getting caught up in the “name game” of promoting or dismissing terminology, what we should focus on is the convergence of research findings in many diverse fields (including, especially those in the domains of cultural evolution and cognitive semantics, which I have been helping integrate into a coherent field of study for about a decade now).

    This convergence includes this list and a lot more:
    – Frame semantics and the neural theory of language as information processing in the brain (a VERY robust basis for reconceptualizing the meme as a neural pattern enacted in the brain and simulated in another brain via the mirror neuron system);
    – Evolutionary processes in digital media that show how stereotyped multimedia information goes through all the dynamics of trait selection known to biology;
    – The profound sociality of humans and our ability to quickly acquire concepts through mimicry;
    – Emergence of cultural patterns that compete at the ideological level, indicating that meme systems (or said another way, archetypal narratives) cooperate, compete, parasitize, and evoke immune responses in all the ways that organisms do in strictly biological contexts.

    All of this is to say that applied memetics is EXTREMELY USEFUL if we properly understand what it is. But to do so we will have to move beyond the shallow debate about word labels and look to the immense convergence of knowledge across many dozens of research fields.

    As one final note, I would point out the cliodynamics is a viable field because there are discernible mathematical patterns in cultural history. This is only possible because those patterns are empirically real and possible to study both qualitatively and quantitatively.

    David Sloan Wilson has asked that I write an introduction to the new field of memetics that combines cognitive linguistics with evolutionary biology. My hope is to complete this writing project by mid-summer — delays due to the immense workload I have at present doing cultural analysis for a large number of clients in the NGO sector at the moment.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Adding one example of the powerful use of meme theory now that we have ubiquitous “data trails” in social media… this study shows how adaptation and mutation change the virality of a piece of scripted content on Facebook.

      link to ladamic.com

      This kind of study was not possible a few years ago and is now routinely conducted with the massive data sets available on the internet. Seeing the rapid prototyping of information (a memetic process at the heart of all forms of technological innovation) wherein trait selection undergoes selective pressure at the level of information structure in social systems is exactly what meme theory explains better than any other perspective.

      If we combine memes using a BOTH/AND mindset (rather than EITHER/OR), all domains of technology evolution across history become tractable in the same way that these Facebook posts go through replication with mutation.

      Onward,

      Joe

      • Peter Turchin says:

        A very interesting study, Joe. However, in this case we understand perfectly well how the information, which is transmitted, is encoded. It’s text files. When we deal with the information encoded in our brains, things are much more complicated. Not to denigrate the study, however, it’s very nice. Note that I never said that we need to ban ‘memes’ from scientific discourse – just that cultural variation is a more general phenomenon.

        • Joe Brewer says:

          I agree with you that cultural variation is a more general concept — and hope to see a proper development of human conceptualization (via cognitive semantics and neurocomputational understandings of language) incorporated more into the study of cultural evolution.

          Another example that comes to mind is the introduction of the semantic frame death panels into the US health care discourse back in 2009. This brief scripted narrative was designed by public relations efforts to counter the Obama Administration’s efforts to reform the health care system. It was spread strategically through social networks via seeding on neoconservative blogs prior to launching it on a major media platform (Fox News). From there it took on a life of its own and was repeatedly evoked by anti-Obama rhetoric among individuals for months and years afterward.

          This type of structured semantic information that propagates, reproduces, and diffuses across social systems as a resonant wave pattern matches with the meme concept quite nicely — so long as it is recognized as a semantic frame enacted within the phenomenological perspective known as “embodiment” which requires that the information processing be consistent with neurological operations in the human brain.

          I think we are getting very close to having this wrapped up. The philosophical considerations have been resolved by the combination of emergent levels of complexity (a la Terrence Deacon in Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter and embodiment philosophy as laid out in Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.

          Looking forward to developing this integrated framework further with collaborators in this community.

          😉

          Joe

          • Joe Brewer says:

            Also, adding to the nuance of this approach, we can begin to explore how variation in semantic structure arises through what Fauconnier and Turner call “conceptual blending” in their book The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. There is quite a lot of systematic ordering of the human conceptual system — including on the way different pieces blend together to form gestalt cognitive wholes.

            Onward!

            Joe

          • tmtyler says:

            FWIW, I can’t say I’m a fan of “conceptual blending” as a term for recombining ideas. IMO, the term “blending” has some pretty specific connotations to do with thorough mixing. These connotations are misleading because that is only one of many ways in which ideas recombine. In the context of ideas, “recombination” seems to be a much more general, interesting and useful term than “blending” is. Or one could use “merge” or “join”. Almost anything is better than “blend”.

        • tmtyler says:

          Representations shouldn’t have anything to do with it. The common ground on which it is appropriate to build sciences of heredity is information theory. In information theory, content is all, and representations are irrelevant.

          The idea that representations are important isn’t an issue with memes, it comes from an idea about genes. In evolutionary theory, genes are – or should be considered to be heritable information. There’s a common idea that genes have something to do with nucleic acids – but that confines genes to modern organisms, makes them inappropriate as units of heredity, and rules out genes in some of our ancestors and descendants. This isn’t a scientific approach to heredity. The correct approach traces back to G.C. Williams – with his:

          “In evolutionary theory, a gene could be defined as any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times the rate of endogenous change” – Williams 1966.

          This rules out neutral genes – which is a questionable move – but Williams was on the right track by saying genes consisted of “any hereditary information”.

          Peter complains that memes are too “gene-like” and says that “gene-like memes is not the way to go”. However, in the classification scheme above, memes are not just *like* genes they *are* genes. Genes consist of heritable information while memes consist of heritable cultural information.

          Even if you reject “gene” as the general term for the unit of heredity (in which case what are you planning to replace “genetics” with?!?) genes and memes both get classified as fragments of heritable information.

          If you think differing representation of memes in different brains is a relevant issue, you aren’t *remotely* on the same page as the meme advocates. Please, at least try to understand what we are saying before rejecting it.

          • Igor Demić says:

            The view on genes themselves has shifted since 1976. Particularist view Dawkins had been defending (optimon/selecton thingie being the pinnacle of that world view) were suppressed thanks to different group-selectionist, epigenetic and other theories. I have a feeling the same thing happened to the meme – it wasn’t adapted enough to the complex world of sociocultural evolution that emerged after the first half of the 80’s. I admit I was a memetics junky for a while, but, although as a non expert, I lost faith in its ability to be the explanatory theory of cultural evolution.

          • tmtyler says:

            “Particularist”? I think you may have used the wrong word. Dawkins has had his opponents, but it seems strange to describe his views as “suppressed”. Most of his views from 1976 went on to become conventional, mainstream evolutionary biology.

            Group selection is still in the dog house. Most of its proponents have now publicly given up the claim that it makes predictions that differ from those of kin selection. It’s what we already know, just rephrased. The new “epigenetics” is a hopeless mess, IMO. Waddington’s “epigenetics” rules. The new epigenetics is a hopeless, pseudo-scientific oxymoron. How dare these turks hijack Waddington’s term and replace it with this nonsense. If these views are what supposedly displaced the views of Dawkins, science seriously needs help.

          • Igor Demić says:

            As a non native speaker of English I might sometimes use wrong words, I admit. What I was aiming at is the way the mainstream shifted from gene-centric to a more diffuse understanding of biological inheritance. When saying mainstream I mean the bulk of people who actually contribute tho the science in question, on all levels of academic work, not just those whose handbooks are being used on the most prominent universities worldwide. I dare to say that probably some 99 % people posting here wouldn’t agree with your statements on group selection and epigenetics. Those theories being still “under construction” doesn’t make them wrong, I guess.

          • Concom says:

            Epigenetic modification of gene expression through methylation – a well established fact. Of course, it spoils the ideal picture of a purely genetic inheritance, but it is a fact we have to deal with it, rather than ignore. I venture to suggest that the accumulation of genetic data will lead to a revision of the role of genes as the main (and only) carrier of heredity, towards recognition of their limited effect on the particular phenotype.

          • Joe Brewer says:

            Concom, I agree with you on this and would add that epigenetics has grown to much greater levels of sophistication over the years. It is now well established that the majority of biochemical productivity and cell differentiation processes are more epigenetic than “simply” genetic — operating as network signaling processes that turn specific genes on and off using methylation to achieve emergent biochemical states. The world of protein production is vastly more complex than early geneticists thought!

            I highly recommend The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance for a broad overview of the research findings in epigenetics across the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

            Great stuff!

            Joe

          • tmtyler says:

            I hope not! IMO, it is best to *define* “genetics” as the science of heredity and “genes” as the bearers of heritable information. This rather obviously makes the new definitions of the term “epigenetics” oxymoronic. If you don’t like this plan, then what are the best alternatives to it that you can think of?

            Specifically, if you want to demote and marginalise the term “gene” in the manner that you describe, then what term are you planing to promote to take its place as the name for a bit of heritable information? Or do you not think that that is a particularly important category?

          • How do yo define heritable in cultural evolution? What would correspond to the generation?

    • tmtyler says:

      I would characterize it as “meme warfare” – rather than a “name game”. As George Orwell understood, words shape thinking, and consequently are powerful tools.

      IMO, memes won long ago. However there’s the issue of how much damage and confusion can be caused to the world’s understanding of cultural evolution during the resulting “mopping up” operation.

      In many ways, memes are the public face of cultural evolution. Misguided attempts to sabotaging them does damage to the whole field. IMO, academics and meme enthusiasts should join forces against their common foe – ignorance of evolution. However, that doesn’t look terribly likely with the current levels of confusion and misunderstanding of memes among academics. The whole situation seems kind-of embarrassing to me.

      • Joe Brewer says:

        I agree with your assessment, Tim. It is a beautiful irony that the “meme” meme won out (as indicated by the amount of attention garnered with it as the label for cultural transmission) using the very evolutionary processes that constitute how cultural evolution actually works.

        More fascinating to me at this point is the opportunity for the field of cultural evolution to go through a period of “punctuated equilibrium” with major evolutionary steps forward into a new paradigm that synthesizes all of the good research done in its name currently with the (much larger) corpus of research on user interface design, diffusion of innovation, marketing and public relations, discourse analysis, information architecture and other related fields that rightly belong in the same domain of inquiry.

        😉

  13. Felix Aurioles says:

    One analogy I find useful when picturing the transmission of ideas is that of two super-imposed “came glasswork” windows. A glass piece is “copied” from the first window into a second empty space,in the frame of the second, but during this “transition”, its size, shape, nature of neighboring pieces, and many other properties change. At the individual level, the adjacent pieces of glass are analogous to the concepts the brain associatesin order to form memories. At a social level the model holds, the empty space is a latent need for the idea product of the structural demographic context; in the bow example made by Gene Anderson, the adjacent glass pieces are a yeoman demographic base, a cavalry tradition in the estepa, availability of yew, etc.
    The thought experiment can apply for ideas other than those relating to technology. Let’s go back on trust, on its different varieties, the efficacy of it, and in turn the individual’s propensity for it, all these change according to game theoretical considerations. Yet, ideological justifications are varied, either based on Christian, Confucian, Socialist, Mazdakist, etc. principles. It is because of this ambiguity that we must distinguish between behaviors or cultural traits, and the pieces of information that form them. There remains a likeness with genetics; when a phenotype is successful it propagates itself along with the information that encodes it. The difference lies, in that while a certain combination of genes always codes for a particular phenotype; the forms of cultural traits depend not only of the “memes” that compose them, but on the order they were absorbed and on the particular social circumstances they entered the culture. And while we can argue that by way of epigenetics some genes fail to express at certain times, or cases of convergent evolution where different genes contribute to the same phenotypic trait; the interactions between ideas are more complex than a binary “on and off” that the “meme” analogy seems to suggest. A better approach to the study of the fundamental unit of information is ontological trope theory, but still we face the problem of abstracting too much and over complicating our study of cultural transitions.
    A less ambitious approach is the direct modeling of behaviors, as in (Rashevsky 1968). This has the advantage of both a neurological explanation, and a comparatively concrete subject of study. One could derive the SI(R) epidemiological models from the above, but such an isomorphism is so general as to be meaningless. And the original Rashevsky model gives us a better insight on the mechanisms of the proses.
    If we use the glass work analogy in conjunction with his approach, consideing usable empty spaces in the frame as possible niches of ideas, that become available due to either culture(adjacent glass pieces), or environment(the boundary conditions of the glass work). This holds a certain similarity with some memeticapproaches; the main differences are that, for sake of simplicity the focus is on phenotype, and its constituent parts are not described as cardinal, but ordinal to the rest of the culture.
    I see no reason to replace behaviors, cultural variants or tropes, with the more problematic meme, simply for the sake of analogy and popularity. A scientific study of civilization should aim to build its own notation and foundation, at least when necessary.Not borrow from other fields, just for the sake of borrowing.

  14. Felix Aurioles says:

    i apologise for the double post and the previous wall of text,

    One analogy I find useful when picturing the transmission of ideas is that of two super-imposed “came glasswork” windows. A glass piece is “copied” from the first window into a second empty space,in the frame of the second, but during this “transition”, its size, shape, nature of neighboring pieces, and many other properties change. At the individual level, the adjacent pieces of glass are analogous to the concepts the brain associatesin order to form memories. At a social level the model holds, the empty space is a latent need for the idea product of the structural demographic context; in the bow example made by Gene Anderson, the adjacent glass pieces are a yeoman demographic base, a cavalry tradition in the estepa, availability of yew, etc.

    The thought experiment can apply for ideas other than those relating to technology. Let’s go back on trust, on its different varieties, the efficacy of it, and in turn the individual’s propensity for it, all these change according to game theoretical considerations. Yet, ideological justifications are varied, either based on Christian, Confucian, Socialist, Mazdakist, etc. principles. It is because of this ambiguity that we must distinguish between behaviors or cultural traits, and the pieces of information that form them. There remains a likeness with genetics; when a phenotype is successful it propagates itself along with the information that encodes it. The difference lies, in that while a certain combination of genes always codes for a particular phenotype; the forms of cultural traits depend not only of the “memes” that compose them, but on the order they were absorbed and on the particular social circumstances they entered the culture. And while we can argue that by way of epigenetics some genes fail to express at certain times, or cases of convergent evolution where different genes contribute to the same phenotypic trait; the interactions between ideas are more complex than a binary “on and off” that the “meme” analogy seems to suggest. A better approach to the study of the fundamental unit of information is ontological trope theory, but still we face the problem of abstracting too much and over complicating our study of cultural transitions.

    A less ambitious approach is the direct modeling of behaviors, as in (Rashevsky 1968). This has the advantage of both a neurological explanation, and a comparatively concrete subject of study. One could derive the SI(R) epidemiological models from the above, but such an isomorphism is so general as to be meaningless. And the original Rashevsky model gives us a better insight on the mechanisms of the proses.

    If we use the glass work analogy in conjunction with his approach, consideing usable empty spaces in the frame as possible niches of ideas, that become available due to either culture(adjacent glass pieces), or environment(the boundary conditions of the glass work). This holds a certain similarity with some memeticapproaches; the main differences are that, for sake of simplicity the focus is on phenotype, and its constituent parts are not described as cardinal, but ordinal to the rest of the culture.

    I see no reason to replace behaviors, cultural variants or tropes, with the more problematic meme, simply for the sake of analogy and popularity. A scientific study of civilization should aim to build its own notation and foundation, at least when necessary.Not borrow from other fields, just for the sake of borrowing.