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May 11, 2003


In earlier notes I examined the idea of cultural evolution by selection operating on groups of people.

This note looks at a different process: cultural evolution operating directly by selection of cultural traits. The general idea is simple: cultural traits (customs, institutions, art forms, etc) ‘reproduce’ (they get themselves copied); the ‘copies’ are similar but not identical; and the variant forms have different rates of survival and further reproduction. These processes meet the usual requirements for natural selection to occur. We can therefore expect cultural traits to evolve in such a way as to maximise their own reproductive success.

This is not a wholly new idea. Even in Darwin’s lifetime people talked about the ‘struggle for existence’ between competing ideas. Philosophers and psychologists like C. S. Peirce and James Mark Baldwin explicitly developed ‘evolutionary’ theories of knowledge using Darwinian concepts. More recently, Karl Popper made the process of ‘trial and error’ central to his ‘evolutionary epistemology’, and pointed out the analogy with Darwinian selection, while Friedrich Hayek described the economics of the free market as a ‘discovery procedure’ in which actions that are not centrally planned or co-ordinated can nevertheless lead, by a process of selection, to efficient outcomes.

But none of these approaches went beyond a vague and rhetorical analogy between cultural processes and natural selection. Richard Dawkins changed that in the 1970s by introducing the concept of a ‘meme’ as the cultural counterpart of the biological ‘gene’, and tracing in some detail the similarities and differences between the two. (To be historically fair, it should be said that Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman simultaneously proposed somewhat similar ideas, but without Dawkins’s flair for publicity.) Apart from establishing the basis for regarding memes as replicating entities, and objects of natural selection, Dawkins points out the corollary that, like genes, memes are essentially selfish. The properties that we expect memes to evolve are those that enhance their own survival and reproduction, and not the interests of individual humans or societies. Sometimes these will coincide, but there is no guarantee of that. Consider, for example, the ‘meme’ for suicide bombing.

In re-reading Dawkins’s writing on memes in ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The Extended Phenotype’ I find very little to disagree with. Dawkins’s explanations are clear, he makes all the necessary cautions and reservations, and he succeeds in proving that the term ‘natural selection’ can legitimately be applied. And yet..... I still feel that the concept of natural selection is far less useful in dealing with culture than it is in biology. Perhaps because Dawkins overplays the ‘selfishness’ of genes within biology itself, he underplays the differences between genes and memes. By and large, functioning genes (as distinct from passive stretches of ‘junk’ DNA), are successful only when they promote the interests of the organisms that carry them, or of other organisms carrying copies of the same gene (usually relatives). Genes are integral parts of the organisms that carry them, and they can only reproduce if those organisms are successful in obtaining nutrition, mates, etc, in competition with others. Moreover, the elaborate system of meiosis ensures that all genes in a body have an equal chance of being replicated. A gene will therefore get itself reproduced if and only if the bodies that carry it are successful in their own ‘struggle for existence’. Long before Darwin, it was easy to see that much of animal and plant morphology and behaviour was ‘adaptive’. The problem was not so much to identify adaptations, as to explain them. Before Darwin, there were only two explanations: the traditional one of ‘God made it that way’, and the more recent, but quite inadequate, one of ‘Lamarckism’. Darwin transformed biology by providing a better explanation.

In culture, by contrast, we do not know how to recognise adaptation, and we are not entitled to assume that it exists at all. We cannot ask ‘which part or function of the organism (or society) does this cultural trait help, and how?’, because we have no reason to assume that it helps any of them. In this respect the meme is quite unlike the gene. The meme can spread and reproduce itself without the aid of biological reproduction. This considerably weakens the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution. There might be a closer analogy between memes and viruses, which are essentially disembodied bits of DNA, free to skip from one body to another. Dawkins himself makes the comparison with viruses, but does not pursue its implications as far as I would wish. The key point is this: in so far as cultural traits are the product of evolution by the natural selection of memes, this gives us no reason to suppose that they will in general be useful, by contributing to reproductive fitness or in any other way, to individual humans or societies. The most we are entitled to say is that the capacity to acquire and transmit culture is (or has been in our evolutionary past) on balance useful, because that capacity has evolved by conventional biological selection.

It does not follow from this that all or even most cultural traits are desirable in themselves. It might be that the capacity for acquiring and transmitting culture is so valuable for certain vital purposes (such as learning how to find food), that its value outweighs the cost of carrying useless or harmful traits. It is conceivable that the great majority of cultural traits are ‘junk culture’, analogous to the ‘junk DNA’ that takes up a large part of the genome. The difference is that junk DNA is usually harmless. Admittedly, it takes up space, and a certain amount of time and resources are wasted in copying it, but beyond that it is harmless because it literally does nothing. In contrast, junk culture may have very serious effects. Belief in witchcraft is, presumably, junk culture, but try telling that to the Witchfinder General when he calls!

If this is accepted, the majority of culture might be ‘junk’. It does not follow that it is. I will try to pursue this in another note.


Posted by David B at 07:08 AM

I don't see why it is necesscary or rational to transform changes in cultural traits over time from a human process into a process where the cultural traits themselves are responsible for the changes, i.e. "Dawkins points out the corollary that, like genes, memes are essentially selfish. The properties that we expect memes to evolve are those that enhance their own survival and reproduction". Dawkins gives as examples of memes as tunes, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots. So then I suppose it's reasonable to say "Pants are essentally selfish. The properties we expect pants to evolve are those that enhance their own survival and reproduction." Or "The phrase "bling bling" is essentially selfish. The properties we expect the phrase "bling bling" to evolve are those that enhances its own survival and reproduction."

Posted by: carter at May 11, 2003 01:01 PM

I think that the biological analogy to cultural evolution may be useful in some contexts, but overall does not really help in understanding cultural evolution.

For one thing, mutation in biology is a random process. In culture, mutation is often willed and rationalized.

Secondly, drift in biology and culture are not analogous. In culture, drift can be earth-shattering in days, while in biology it works little by little over generations.

Thirdly, especially in our age with our passion for archiving and cataloguing, memes never die. They may remain buried in a library dormant in generations in a single copy before manifesting themselves anew.

While in natural evolution, genetic variation is produced in small random increments and smoothed over long periods of time, in cultural evolution, cultural variation is produced in large willed increments and can explode or disappear in short periods of time.

Posted by: Dienekes at May 11, 2003 03:47 PM

Good (and amusing) points by Carter.

Yes, we do expect pants to evolve properties that ensure their own survival and reproduction - and they seem to be very good at it - aren't you wearing any?

But of course, Dawkins's main target is the memes for religion and other irrational belief systems. I don't necessarily agree with him, but I think the argument has to be taken seriously. If you read any compendium of anthropological data on the beliefs and customs of pre-modern peoples, 90% (at least) of what they believe, and maybe 50% of what they do, seems stark staring mad. Any theory of culture needs to account for this.

Posted by: David B at May 12, 2003 02:39 AM

>>mutation in biology is a random process. In culture, mutation is often willed and rationalized

Yes but what does it *mean* to say that culture is willed and rationalised? To an outside observer how exactly is that distinguishable from a random process? Susan Blackmore argues that even the sense of self and free will is a meme (obviously a useful one) and most neuroscientific research suggests there is no central theatre of the mind. Hume's picture of the mind as a bunch of globules of passions bouncing against each other seems truer than ever.

Posted by: Jason Soon at May 12, 2003 04:13 AM

This analogy evolution-types are making between their own feild and broader life is interesting, but is it falsifiable? How do you test this meme idea? If you can't test it, it's just an airy metaphor. Fun for late-night gabfests in college. Otherwise silly.

Here's another airy metaphor from economics. Cultural traits survive so long as tyhier marginal utility exceeds their marginal cost. People beleive will beleive more and more in horoscopes until the marginal cost of horoscope belief exceeds the marginal benefit.

this is another untestable metaphor. About as useless as the meme idea. I say evolution types should stick to their knitting. Or, to put it another way, the marginal cost of extending beleif in evolution to another discipline has exceeded its marginal benefit. Economics has whipped your evolutionary ass!

Posted by: Ikram Saeed at May 12, 2003 06:40 AM

I don't know if I would call it "silly" , I would just say that it's more appropriately thought of as *philosophy* (theories through formal logic 101) instead of *science*.

Also, I mostly agree that the "evolutionary algorithm" is an appealing solution for the problem to evolutionists b/c they are evolutionists. But I think one could argue that your economic model is pretty close to the natural selection one anyway, Ikram. Afterall wasn't Adam Smith an influence on Darwin's theory? (maybe J. Soon, who is an economist and an evolutionist can decide if you've definitively kicked ass though, Ikram ;) )

Update: Jason Soon already has pretty impressive post up about the similarities between economic and evolutionary theory.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at May 12, 2003 09:11 AM

"To an outside observer how exactly is that distinguishable from a random process?"

Does the universe have an outside observer? Who/What is the outside observer of the human mind and human culture? Don't replace a phantom with a ghost.

Posted by: martin at May 12, 2003 10:18 AM

I’m in the middle of Darwin’s Cathedral right now, so I’ll be able to respond in more detail later. But Wilson at least tries to distinguish between viewing religion as adaptive (group level, individual level, maladaptive) or nonadaptive (adaptive to past environments, but currently not adaptive, or a byproduct of some other adaptation like language, self awareness or rational thought). He specifically takes Calvinism and tries to place it into its historical and sociological context and tries to show whether or not it can be seen as adaptive to that context. He thinks it’s adaptive on the group level because it enables its adherents to behave as a more coordinated corporate entity.

So when David writes, “If you read any compendium of anthropological data on the beliefs and customs of pre-modern peoples, 90% (at least) of what they believe, and maybe 50% of what they do, seems stark staring mad. Any theory of culture needs to account for this,” two questions come to mind. First “stark staring mad” compared to what? Compared to the modern “meme” of scientific, rational thought or compared to sitting in trees chomping on fruit? And religion has the benefit of enabling its members to live as a better adapted group, wouldn’t that account for the seeming irrationality of religion?

Next I want to ask a straightforward question about memes – what the hell are they? I’m talking in a material sense. Genes are units of DNA that normally code for particular proteins. They are known molecules with known molecular properties. A meme, on the other hand, are is a “piece of information that exists inside the minds of individuals.” If the idea of memes is going to make any headway beyond its current speculative metaphorical use, it will need to defined more precisely as some “thing.”

Finally, Jason S asks, “yes but what does it *mean* to say that culture is willed and rationalised? To an outside observer how exactly is that distinguishable from a random process.” From a certain level of analysis it may not be necessary to invoke ideas like will and consciousness, but when dealing at the level of individual people we do assume they are willful, conscious entities. It seems that to deny the reality of consciousness and will just turns the “ghost in the machine” into the illusion of the machine.

Posted by: justapolak at May 12, 2003 10:35 AM

I read jason's post going through Krugman's comparison. Pretty good. I understand the genetics and economic comparison. It makes sense. But that is different from the culture-meme idea. I don't understand the foundations of this idea.

Maybe I am echoing justapolak here. At the bottom of it all, what is a meme? Why do meme's "propogate" themselves if individuals have their own decision making power, and can reject ideas (memes) if they don't see them as empirically useful.

At the bottom of it, does this meme stuff say people discard ideas that are not useful to them (by whatever metric you choose to measure 'useful')? Or is there something more to this?

Posted by: Ikram Saeed at May 12, 2003 12:48 PM

>> Yes but what does it *mean* to say that culture is willed and rationalised? To an outside observer how exactly is that distinguishable from a random process?

Let's take the example of music. Mutations in music styles might correspond to substituting an instrument, adding an instrument, using different harmonic or melodic patterns. It's possible to create music by random mutation, by generating noise and keeping the 5% least annoying noise until something agreeable manifests itself.

And, of course there is no objective outside observer. Culture follows the patterns of human thinking. Human thinking does not arbitrarily insert a screeching noise in the middle of a symphony, because it has insight that this will not work. In a sense, human thinking anticipates the effects of a "cultural selection", i.e., that the audience would walk out if you did that. Thus, human thinking DIRECTS mutation. On the other hand, in biology, mutation is undirected and random.

Posted by: Dienekes at May 12, 2003 03:33 PM

"On the other hand, in biology, mutation is undirected and random."

My interpretation is that this statement is too severe. Mutations are random, yes, but mutations can serve a pre-existent will. The Baldwin effect is very interesting: "That learning and other lifetime adaptations can effect the course that evolution can take was first noted by J.M. Baldwin in 1896. In an evolving population, individuals that are able to acquire a trait during their lifetime will be selected for if it is advantageous. The offspring of these learning individuals will then come to dominate the population since it is their genes are passed on to later generations. Once the population is full of learning individuals, the learnt trait may genetically specified in subsequent generations. This process occurs in a non-Lamarckian evolutionary framework and is known as the Baldwin Effect." Some very interesting research out there.

Posted by: martin at May 12, 2003 06:12 PM

When I first saw the meme idea I was knee-jerk negative, thinking it was a natural scientist poaching on social science. However, the idea of the meme specifically removes social evolution from simple biological determination.

I also thought in whole-culture terms then and objected to the atomism, but by now I like it. An isolated meme from one culture can have a powerful effect in a second culture, even though its function in the second culture is very different from its function in the first.

An striking example is seen in the book "Silk and Religion" (Xinru Liu). The use of certain colors of silk in funeral ceremonies, together with the veneration of relics, travelled through Islam, Buddhiusm, and Christianity (having originated in China). The practices involved were foreign or even contrary to the original practices and beliefs of these religions.

I always want to nag about culture. Culture as a human variable, as opposed to nature, has to include power relations, property relations, technology, etc. Growing potatoes is a meme; so is the limited liability corporation, or primogeniture. There's a tendency to zero in on the fluffier aspects of culture when talking about human variation, rather than the more institutional ones.

Talking about selfish memes is a truism -- presumably the selfless memes disappear. It's not hard to find situations where a custom seems to do harm to most people involved (Hindu wedding practices look that way to me), but once you start asking questions about the "functions" of memes or customs things quickly get muddy.

Certainly there are memes which, whether or not they are beneficial on the average, do a lot of harm to some of the individuals involved, but without disappearing.

Memetics could provide a general framework for doing research without being testable theory as such. There are a lot of general ideas floating around in the sciences which aren't exactly theories, much less facts.

Posted by: zizka at May 12, 2003 08:43 PM

"A general framework without being testable"

Then what good is it. What new or useful thing is this meme idea adding?

And doesn't this evaluation of meme's according to its benefits suggest that meme's do not propogate themselves? According to this way of thinking, a meme is a meme. On what basis will a person accept the meme meme? Presumably if it provides some useful function.

So, why should I adopt the meme meme. And what does this say about memes?

Posted by: Ikram Saeed at May 12, 2003 08:53 PM

As far as "testable", there are lots of critiques of Popper out there but I'm not able to whip one out. But if you look at the conceptual apparatus of any given scientist, you normally find working principles which have not been and in some cases can't be tested. Not facts, or theories to be tested, but ways of operating. Scientists can't really be aware or skeptical about every aspect of their intellectual apparatus. For example, a scientist might have a habit of building geometrical models of things in order to understand them. He has no way of proving in advance that this kind of model-building is right for the topic he's working on, he just tries it and sees if it works. I think memes are worth trying. (I suppose Kuhn's paradigms are going to pop up here, but he's not the only critic of Popper).

One of the advantages of the meme is detachability or atomism, as I said. Holistic descriptions of cultures make comparisons, discussions of mixed cultures, and discussions of cultural exchange close to impossible. "Meme" is general enough that it can cover a variety of phenomena.

Another thing about a meme is that a new meme can cause big changes while flying under the radar of consciousness. Small and initially undramatic meme changes can ripple throught a society and force big changes that no one ever expected or agreed to. Again, this could be a single unit meme, like metal axes replacing stone axes. It helps get away from thinking of history entirely as conscious voluntary behavior while still acknowledging the culturally-coded non-biological dimension.

My point with what I said about "function" was precisely that it makes it hard to say that a meme is "selfish" at the expense of meme-bearers. However, functional explanation in history and anthropology is Panglossian in exactly the way Gould says Dawkins biology is, and in fact the criticism of anthropological functionalism is well established and uncontroversial where Gould's ideas are not.

I'm not a big advocate of memes but the idea has the advantages I've said as a way of looking at culture change and contact and historical development.

Posted by: zizka at May 12, 2003 10:37 PM

Well, I'm glad I started a good debate!

I hope it's clear from my post that I'm not a zealous evangelist for 'memes'. When I started writing it, my intention was to trash the whole idea, but as I went along (and re-read Dawkins for the purpose), I found myself warming to it - at least from 'chilly' to 'lukewarm'. Some of the criticisms people have made in the above comments are answered quite well by Dawkins himself.

My attitude would be 'Let's keep this tool in our intellectual toolkit, and see if it comes in useful from time to time'. I'm sure it will be more useful in some areas (like the history of fashion) than others. I doubt that it has much to offer in explaining practical technology, for example. But the borderline between practical and non-practical is fuzzy. To return to 'pants', why do we wear long pants (trousers) and not knee-breeches? I doubt very much that long pants are more practical. The facetious answer would be that around 1810 Beau Brummell decreed that knee-breeches are 'so last century', and the whole world followed him. To understand why, we do at least have to think about why fashions change, the concept of 'modernity', why 18th-century styles seem archaic (and/or effeminate), and so on.

Posted by: David B at May 13, 2003 12:34 AM

Well, marginal analysis can be overextended (Chicago economists have tried to apply it to the decision to have children), but it's not exactly a useless tool.

The point I was trying to make. In science or any form of inquiry, you start with what is definitely known. You also define a scientific question which is still unanswered, but which you think can be answered and brought within the scope of the known. You form hypotheses and test them by seeing if they accord with the already-known.

Concepts like "memes" are not the hypotheses themselves, and are not tested. They come into play while you're trying to form a hypothesis and trying to figure out an experiment by which to test the hypothesis. "Meme" thinking is a sort of research strategy, not a theory. You test strategies by trying them, but if they work well they do gain some kind of scientific status.

Evolutionary psychology strikes me as a strategy more than a theory so far. The same Panglossian warnings hold.

Posted by: zizka at May 13, 2003 09:35 AM

In defense of memetics, it should be pointed out that biological evolution is still a work in progress. It was developed largely conceptually well before being placed on a firmer scientific foundation with the development of genetics, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the mapping of genomes. And evolutionary psychology also suffers from many of the same shortcomings as memetics. To some extent memetics is a revival of the traditional scholarship that Marxism and postmodernism marginalized – that is, cultural evolution and progress.

If, as David said, much of culture is “junk culture,” the challenge becomes separating out cultural traits that have adaptive value from those that either don’t or are (or have become) maladaptive. I don’t think anyone here will deny that rational, scientific methodology and free markets have adaptive value over superstition and central planning. But does Christianity, say, have an adaptive value (or a less maladaptive value) over Islam?

Finally I’m not sure why memetics would be better at explaining the history of fashion than the development of practical technology. Both are developed consciously (weakening the analogy with biological evolution), but fashion doesn’t appear to have much of a fitness test, whereas practical technology does.

Posted by: justapolak at May 13, 2003 10:30 AM

By setting your scientific standards high enough, it's possible to dismiss almost all discourse about society, history, and culture. Evolutionary psychology may conceivably be hypothetically more testable because there is a physical biological component to work on.

Posted by: zizka at May 13, 2003 07:37 PM

"By setting your scientific standards high enough, it's possible to dismiss almost all discourse about society, history, and culture."

This seems to have been the problem with logical positivism, which had science abandon inquiry into society, history and culture and left it to the nonsense of postmodernism. I think memetics is a way to investigate these things more scientifically. It may not provide much in the way of testable hypotheses, but I think it can at least narrow the focus and ask questions such as are cultural traits adaptive and to what extent?

An example of this is with corporate practices. What makes a corporation successful? Its personnel, corporate culture, internal organization, business practics (and which ones)? I think by looking at memetics in this pragmatic sense, there may already be some real world experiments where the flow of memes can be investigated.

Posted by: justapolak at May 14, 2003 05:21 AM

Justapolak: one version of logical positivism proposed the "boo/hurrah" theory of ethics: to say that something is good is to say that you like that thing. This is not far from Sartre's "existential choice", choosing something even though there are not sufficient reasons for it, or the Christian "leap of faith", or the libertarian "ethics is purely personal", or postmodern personal-liberationist anti-ethical thinking. The connection between logical positivism and the rest of them is rarely made, but the nihilism is similiar in all these cases.

Posted by: zizka at May 14, 2003 09:49 AM

David B. said, "I doubt that [the meme] has much to offer in explaining practical technology...".

I work as an engineer, and I'd have to say that the methodology of engineering changes over time and certainly differs over space, as techniques are introduced and either "stick" or fail to stick as acceptable methods of engineering. As an example, look at the differences between spacecraft engineering between NASA and those in the old Soviet Union, like Korolev; both approaches clearly work, but the Soviet methodologies scare the crap out of NASA, and the ex-Soviets are baffled by some of the NASA practices.

The concept of memes in practical technology extends even to the manufacturing floor. I once witnessed a production engineer who successfully trained novice workers to do what was regarded as an extremely difficult task suitable for only the most experienced operators; he just avoided the meme that it was hard, and instead told them it was easy. He trained dozens of operators that way, with almost no failures... to the complete bafflement of the other workers (and of competing firms, for that matter). But did they accept the new meme? No, they were infected with the old one -- and lost in the ensuing competition.

These are just two examples, but I'm sure I could come up with literally hundreds with a bit of thought.

Posted by: Troy at May 17, 2003 05:31 AM