Excerpt: Memes Vs. Cultural Evolution

By | July 10, 2014

Excerpt from blog post by Peter Turchin, a professor of Biology and Anthropology in the University of Connecticut. Here he refutes playing too much on the analogy between memes and genes.

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.

Full version: https://evolution-institute.org/blog/progress-memes-and-cultural-evolution/