Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory | Meme | Natural Selection

Brit. J. Phil. Sci.

59 (2008), 455–479

Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory
G. K. D. Crozier
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ABSTRACT
This paper examines conceptual issues that arise in applications of Darwinian natural selection to cultural systems. I argue that many criticisms of cultural selectionist models have been based on an over-detailed reading of the analogy between biological and cultural units of selection. I identify five of the most powerful objections to cultural selection theory and argue that none cuts to its heart. Some objections are based on mistaken assumptions about the simplicity of the mechanisms of biological heredity. Other objections are attributable, rather, to mistaken inferences from observations of biological subject matter to what is essential in natural selection. I argue that such features are idiosyncratic of biological systems, but not essential for natural selection. My arguments throughout are illustrated by examples from biological and cultural evolution, and counter-factual illustrations from the history of theoretical biology.

Introduction Cultural Selection Theory First Objection: Lamarckianism Second Objection: Genotype–Phenotype Distinction Third Objection: Common Hereditary Architecture Fourth Objection: Biological Analogue for Cultural Units 6.1 Regarding strict analogues 6.2 Regarding the trait analogue 6.3 Regarding the virus analogue 7 Fifth Objection: Environmental Interaction 8 Conclusion 1 2 3 4 5 6

1 Introduction
The mechanism of evolution by natural selection has been applied to fields as diverse as immunology, computation, neural programming, and cultural change. Though selectionist explanations of cultural change seem plausible and show potential for providing valuable insight, this field has not developed into a strong research area. It lacks several key features, including a widely accepted,
C The Author (2008). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science. All rights reserved. doi:10.1093/bjps/axn018 For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org Advance Access published on July 22, 2008

456

G. K. D. Crozier

clear case study and an account of the role of environmental variables in the evolution of cultural traits. This paper examines the conceptual issues that arise in applications of Darwinian natural selection to cultural systems, defending cultural selectionist models that are somewhat analogous to models of genetic selection. Many criticisms of cultural selectionist models have been based on an over-detailed reading of the analogy between biological and cultural units of selection. Specifically, such objections are based on misconceptions about the relationships between biological evolution, cultural evolution, and the theory of natural selection.

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2 Cultural Selection Theory
Cultural selection theory studies cultural changes by modelling them after theories of biological evolution. Three prominent approaches to cultural selection are social contagion theory, evolutionary epistemology, and memetics. Social contagion theory’s epidemiological approach construes social entities as analogous to parasites that are transmitted virally through a population of biological organisms. Evolutionary epistemology’s focus lies in causally connecting evolutionary biology and rationality by generating explanations for why traits for rational behaviour or thought patterns would have been selected for in a species’ evolutionary history. Memetics models cultural change after population genetics, taking cultural units to be analogous to genes. This essay is concerned with systems of cultural evolution that are unambiguously non-strategic: that is, the mechanisms underlying the systems of interest are not forward-thinking or rational in any sense, but rather result from blind variation and selective retention of characteristics resulting from environmental interaction. Some theorists contend that even quintessentially strategic, forward-thinking, rational processes are essentially the product of non-strategic, Darwinian selection. For example, some of Popper’s ([1972]) work in the philosophy of science and Campbell’s ([1974]) evolutionary epistemology can be interpreted as supporting this view. This essay, however, is not concerned with such processes. Most of the debate to be considered takes place within the context of memetics, but it applies more broadly as well. For example, in distinction from supporters of memetics, I am committed neither to finding a cultural analogue of the gene nor to the existence of some cultural unit that is faithfully replicated from generation to generation. What I am committed to is searching for cultural adaptations and the mechanisms responsible for them on a case-by-case basis, and to remaining open-minded about what specific forms those mechanisms can take within natural selection theory. I argue that we can learn from the history of evolutionary biology which elements are truly central to selection

The systems that are chosen for memetic analyses are as diverse as the interests of their authors: fads. . The memetic framework excited a generation of researchers with the possibility of replicating the success of molecular biology.oxfordjournals. a theory. The 35-year inability of memeticists to find compelling evidence or devise decisive investigations in order to narrow the candidate hypotheses indicates to some that memetics has failed to describe any robust causal features of the cultural landscape. they can be so wispy as to be almost nothing [. . Rarely will two authors tackle the same subject matter. . Edmonds ([2005]) dissolved the Journal of Memetics. Gardner ([2000]) argues that: [. tool use. . of which he was the founder and editor. since much of the relevant literature uses the terminology of memes and memetics. creating more confusion than light. rumours. Downloaded from http://bjps.] They make no predictions and cannot be falsified. chess moves. 2) contends that memetics: [. 2012 Similarly. many of the cultural systems discussed in the literature are hypothetical cases introduced to support a theoretical or definitional point. this paper will make use of that vocabulary. Although analogies had been drawn between cultural and biological evolution for some time. The consequent debates rarely reach community consensus. it was in the 1970s that memetics arose as a recognizable metaphor around which to structure investigations and build a theory of cultural evolution by natural selection analogous to genetics. . and are without any empirical content. ideologies. or some other device? Depending on who you talk to.] is so variable as to provide no fixed target [. religious symbols. p.] A meme is so broadly defined by its proponents as to be a useless concept. For example.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. .Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 457 theory and which only appear to be so due to the successes of contemporary genetics and the idiosyncrasies of the biological medium. Nevertheless. social institutions. . art. He contends that memetic studies have produced nothing more than what could be found in cultural evolutionary models without . . however. . . and so on. analogous to biological genes. Lanier ([1999]. They are no more than a perspective. Dawkins ([1976]) coined the term meme to refer to cultural units that are differentially replicated during a process of natural selection. Recently. and disagreements pass out of attention due to their resistance to resolution rather than because theorists have reached agreement. Despite all this attention. Further.] Are memes a rhetorical technique. a metaphor.] memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer [. little coherence has been generated within the field of memetics.

these arguments rely on claims concerning the ease with which the biological subject matter can be carved at the joints when contrasted with the relatively arbitrary distinctions that apparently characterize their cultural counterparts. on the whole. I contend that both proponents and critics of cultural evolutionary studies must abandon their shared hidden premise that biological evolution is the archetypal example of evolution by natural selection rather than merely one . this mistake is grounded in an element of truth.oxfordjournals. Second. seeking to generalize explanation rather than been productive of essentially new insights. K.458 G. One theme that will emerge in these critiques is that many objections are based on disanalogies between the mechanisms of biological evolution and their proposed cultural counterparts. This sort of discussion shifts any study of memetics from the realm of science to that of philosophy and. I will argue that critiques based on disanalogies between the media of biological and cultural evolutionary systems rely on two categories of controversial claims. Downloaded from http://bjps. 2012 I will review some theoretical debates regarding the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to cultural evolutionary studies. Thus for example. this philosophy has adopted the subsumption tactic (Hull [2001]). I will argue that these claims lose their force on closer inspection. First. Academics who seek to study memetics in serious ways have suffered in the respect that they are often confused with those on the penumbra for whom memetics is a fad. However.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. attempts have been made to explain some immensely complex phenomena such as religion in general or consciousness. Edmonds ([2005]) writes: I claim that the underlying reason memetics has failed is that it has not provided any extra explanatory or predictive power beyond that available without the gene–meme analogy. I will argue that these premises are vulnerable to charges of anachronism. it has not provided any added value in terms of providing new understanding of phenomena. The study of memetics has been characterized by theoretical discussion of extreme abstraction and over ambition. Thus whilst the idea of memes has retained its attractiveness for some in terms of a framework for thinking about phenomena. The ability to think of some phenomena in a particular way (or describe it using a certain framework) does not mean that the phenomena has those properties in any significant sense. before any evidence is available or detailed causal models constructed. and that this has resulted in a loss of academic interest in the field. The fact that some who wear the theoretical spectacles (Kuhn [1969]) of memetics insist on redescribing a host of phenomena in these terms despite the lack of substantive results merely confirms other academics’ opinion of the approach. D. Crozier genetic analogies. these arguments rely on premises concerning what auxiliary assumptions are incompatible with the theory of evolution by natural selection.

rather than with the evolution of biological organisms. it may be premature to continue pursuing theoretical debates. Charges to the contrary are based upon misconceptions of the hereditary pattern of cultural units. In Darwinian evolutionary theory. Further.oxfordjournals. Lamarckian inheritance occurs when characteristics acquired by predecessors during their lifetimes are inherited by their successors. with tracking changes in cultural systems themselves. supplanted by a Darwinian theory of blind variation and selective retention. Lamarck advocated the theory of adaptation by the inheritance of acquired characteristics: the theory that evolutionary adaptations are the cumulative effects of the use or disuse of organs during the lifetimes of organisms. on the other hand. as well as the effects of these pressures on cultural populations to generate adaptations or frequency changes. the application of Darwinian natural selection in these domains would still be possible. and if the change is transmitted somehow to the heritable material so that it can be passed on to the offspring of the organism through reproduction. rather. cultural evolution is not inherently Lamarckian. it is the effects of selection pressures on cultural entities that are of interest. generally this is meant to imply that the theory is seriously flawed. First. Second. to be inherently Lamarckian since cultural characteristics are acquired by an organism during its life and can subsequently be passed on to its offspring. In its literal sense. In cultural evolution. 3 First Objection: Lamarckianism One predominant critique of cultural evolutionary studies is that it is inherently Lamarckian. heritable variations are random with respect to the fitness effects they will have when the organism interacts with its environment. I will argue that the charges of Lamarckianism do not undermine cultural evolutionary studies. Biological organisms fade from view under cultural evolutionary description since they participate in only part of the lifecycle of Downloaded from http://bjps. Cultural evolution may appear.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. Although the biological organism’s phenotype is modified by the introduction of new cultural traits during its lifetime. Lamarckian evolution has long been disconfirmed in biology. Some caution is in order here: it must be remembered that cultural evolution is concerned with the evolution of units of culture.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 459 of several domains in which this process takes place. Consequently. at first glance. A generation before Darwin. until we have case studies to demonstrate the viability of cultural selection theory. 2012 . evolution is Lamarckian if the environment changes the phenotype of an organism so that this organism is better adapted to the environmental factor that produced this change. even if cultural evolution did proceed by Lamarckian means. when an evolutionary theory is charged with being Lamarckian. cultural evolution is concerned. Darwinian and Lamarckian mechanisms can coexist in the same system.

460 G. 56) puts the point this way: For example.) However. K.oxfordjournals. Speel ([1997]) coined the terms memotype and phemotype to refer to the cultural counterparts of the biological genotype and phenotype. if memetics is anything. However. since there is no mechanism by which changes to a parent’s phenotype can cause corresponding changes to its genetic material thereby making those changes transmittable to its offspring. although Lamarckianism is often misunderstood to be in tension with Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Since it is the evolution of cultural and not biological units that is under examination.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. It is made to look plausible only by running together the genetic with the memetic perspectives. In the science of memetics. Hull ([2000]. Isn’t this an instance of the inheritance of acquired characteristics? Not in the least. Darwin himself contended that some evolution was likely the result of Lamarckian adaptation of acquired characteristics. (Epigenetic mechanisms are one possible exception. Only if the phemotypes—not phenotypes—manifest characteristics that are both acquired during their own lifecycles and heritable to further generations of cultural progeny. . they will not undermine cultural selection theory. there may be genuine cases of Lamarckian cultural evolution. You have acquired a new meme. Crozier the cultural entities: biological entities are the medium of the copying process of the cultural entities. and I will follow this terminology throughout. 4 Second Objection: Genotype–Phenotype Distinction The identification of an instance of biological evolution as Lamarckian or Darwinian hinges on the genotype–phenotype distinction. cultural evolution is not inherently Lamarckian. Still more importantly. not phenotypic characteristics. but if cases of Lamarckian evolution are discovered. Hence. you did not understand the Pythagorean Theorem. is their evolution properly to be described as Lamarckian. Downloaded from http://bjps. You take a course in plane geometry. it is the inheritance of acquired memes. and now you do. You in turn can pass this increased knowledge on to someone else. Cultural evolution is not inherently Lamarckian. memes are analogous to genes. This is the foundation of some objections to the importation of selection theory to cultural systems. nor would it devalue Darwinian natural selectionist approaches to the description of cultural evolutionary systems. p. the discovery of such cases would neither undermine the veracity of cultural evolutionary theory. How passing on memes (or fleas for that matter) can count as Lamarckian inheritance in any comprehensible fashion continues to elude me. it would be from the point of view of the cultural unit rather than the organism. the two mechanisms are compatible. 2012 If we were to draw a genealogical tree in memetics. It is generally conceded that Lamarckian evolution does not take place in biological evolution. D.

held to be importantly distinct in evolutionary biology. 2012 . The effectiveness of such bias in producing adaptation is contingent on the maintenance of certain quantitative relationships among the operative factors. the version visible to the user. for example—have no obvious memotype and appear to be all phemotype. This is because the distinction between these roles is based on a consensus that arose from the units of selection debate in theoretical biology—a consensus whose conceptual basis is potentially flawed: even in traditional evolutionary biology this distinction does not necessarily apply.] If the Downloaded from http://bjps. [. and a growth and development mediated by numerous meals. Williams wrote ([1966]. and in particular population geneticists. . At the forefront of the units of selection debate. for example. In such cases. the experiences they and his environment later provided. . .org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. can be identified as the phemotype. Acceptance of this theory necessitates the immediate rejection of the importance of certain kinds of selection. while others resist the application of this distinction. 22–4): The essence of the genetical theory of natural selection is a statistical bias in the relative rates of survival of alternatives (genes. pp. Permanence implies reproduction with a potential geometric increase. should not undermine the application of natural selection to the cultural domain. while Mayr and Gould argued that individual organisms hold this position. who may or may not forward it.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 461 Some cases of cultural evolution support the identification of phemotype and memotype. I will argue that this conflation of these two kinds of units of selection. The underlying html code of the e-mails can be identified as the memotype. [.] Socrates consisted of the genes his parents gave him. etc. the same cultural entity seems to be serving two roles that are generally distinct in biological evolutionary processes: replicator and vehicle/interactor. The resolution to this debate by Hull and Dawkins through the replicator–vehicle/interactor distinction convinced many theorists that natural selection requires something in the role of the replicator. because phenotypes are extremely temporary manifestations. Williams and Dawkins supported genes as the true units of selection. The natural selection of phenotypes cannot in itself produce cumulative change. Consider. One necessary condition is that the selected entity must have a high degree of permanence and a low rate of endogenous change relative to the degree of bias (differences in selection coefficients).). are interested primarily in tracking frequencies across generations. Other cases—bird songs.oxfordjournals. It is this that I wish to question. the reproduction of chain letter e-mails that are coded in html. Williams’ ([1966]) bookkeeping argument (a term coined by Wimsatt [1980]. [1981] in a criticism of genetic reductionism) advocated genes as the proper unit of selection. He supported this on the basis that evolutionary biologists. . individuals.

Replicators must survive long enough to affect their own rate of replication. something else soon would have. This debate was accepted by many to have been resolved when Hull ([1981]) and Dawkins ([1982]) independently argued that there are two kinds of units of selection (Reeve and Keller [1999]). 155) summarize this conception of the units of selection as consisting of the following three qualities: (1) Copying Fidelity. Mayr ([1963]) and Eldredge and Gould ([1972]). At least some varieties of the replicator must be capable of generating more than one copy of themselves. . Building on the work of Williams. it did not of itself produce any cumulative effect. With Socrates’ death. Boyd and Richerson ([2000]. Downloaded from http://bjps. D. . They contended that. . argued that individuals are the proper units of selection because it is their properties that interact with the environment to determine how many offspring will be produced in the next generation. (2) Fecundity. 33) describes these two types of units as follows: . Each party in the debate over genes versus individuals was correct in identifying one of these two kinds of units of selection. by definition. K. So however natural selection may have been acting on Greek phenotypes in the fourth century B. individuals (phenotypes) are the proper units of selection. Crozier hemlock had not killed him.oxfordjournals. p. Dawkins argued that genes are the only biological units with sufficient fecundity. Dawkins ([1976]) also placed genes at the centre of natural selection. longevity.] It is only the meiotically dissociated fragments of the genotype that are transmitted in sexual reproduction. . If there is an ultimate indivisible fragment it is. not only did his phenotype disappear. ‘the gene’ that is treated in the abstract discussions of population genetics. Williams argued that genes rather than phenotypes are the units on which natural selection operates. 2012 Since biological individuals have a population frequency approaching zero.462 G.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. Hull ([1981]. [. (3) Longevity.C. p. with the units of selection defined as those things that produce copies of themselves. since gene frequencies only change directionally because of environmental interaction with phenotypes..] The same argument also holds for genotypes. The copying must be sufficiently accurate that even after a long chain of copies the replicator remains almost unchanged. and stability to be subject to the multiple iterations of selection required for complex adaptations to arise. to the contrary. [. and these fragments are further fragmented by meiosis in the next generation. but also his genotype.

Griesemer ([unpublished]) is currently working on a conception of reproduction that may suit the needs of cultural selection. p. Ideas must be gene-like to the extent that they are somehow capable of carrying the cultural information necessary to give rise to the cumulative evolution of complex cultural patterns that differentiate human groups. They exhibit the essential Darwinian properties of fidelity.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 463 Replicators—entities that pass on their structure directly in replication. This is defined in terms of copying fidelity. so we do not know whether culturally transmitted ideas and beliefs are replicators or not. fecundity. All that is really required is that culture constitutes a system maintaining heritable variation. as the example of phonemes shows. The numbers in which replicators are represented in subsequent generations are dependent upon the interactions between the selective environments and the vehicles/interactors that are created by replicators. Interactors—entities that produce differential replication by means of directly interacting as cohesive wholes with their environments. Fortunately.oxfordjournals. Boyd and Richerson advocate abandoning the genocentricity of a memetic approach. . we do not need perfectly faithful reproduction in the sense of Dawkins and Hull’s replicator. If the application of Darwinian thinking to understanding cultural change depended on the existence of replicators. Boyd and Richerson ([2000]. While we do need the reproduction or emulation of a prototype. 2012 To this end. we would be in trouble. replicatorless process of error-prone phenotypic imitation. Eldredge. Vehicles (or interactors in Dawkins’ [1982] terminology) are units subject to the direct causal effects of external selection pressures. but. and in particular the view that cultural units must be replicators that are capable of being reproduced with near-perfect fidelity. this can be accomplished by a most ungene like. Boyd and Richerson ([2000]) argue that the resolution to the units of selection debate offered by Hull and Dawkins is based on the misconception that it is necessary for replicators to exemplify near-perfect copying fidelity. fecundity and longevity. Downloaded from http://bjps. 158) write: We do not understand in detail how culture is stored and transmitted. and longevity according to the specifications of Williams and Dawkins. and they accord with Mayr. They argue that the term replicator is a potentially misleading one since it is correlation between generations that is required for evolution by natural selection and not replication per se: replication is one kind of correlation that can lead to evolution by natural selection.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. and Gould’s notion of the units of selection. They represent the effects of selection by virtue of the changes in frequency with which they appear in subsequent generations. but not the only kind. and through which replicators are transmitted into the next generation. Replicators are units that can be replicated in subsequent generations. culture need not be closely analogous to genes.

that this path to a model of cultural evolution still has merit. however.464 G. hereditary architecture that is common to all systems. 281). D. since there is no hereditary architecture that is common to cultural systems. I will argue. or their relative contributions—can fluctuate irregularly from generation to generation.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. (1b) the parental contributions from different parents are radically unequal [. the identification of this architecture was facilitated by prior observations of variations in the frequency of traits in biological populations over time and geographic regions.]. the common hereditary architecture shared by biological systems certainly helps researchers to make generalizations. Crozier 5 Third Objection: Common Hereditary Architecture Another challenge levied against cultural selection theory is that. and flow from there to derivative problems in characterizing cultural analogues to gametes. if this is correct. (1c) any of these parameters—the number of parents. the genetic architecture does not guarantee a hereditary structure sufficiently rigid that the units of selection are obvious. Wimsatt’s argument identifies some of the problems central to any memetic approach to selectionist interpretations of cultural evolution. Wimsatt ([1999]) argues that the absence of such universal memetic architecture makes it too difficult to define the cultural units of selection and environmental interaction. the study of cultural evolution in this area has just recently begun. First. Downloaded from http://bjps. the participation of all biological systems in common hereditary patterns greatly facilitates the identification of genes and gene-centred models. however.oxfordjournals. Wimsatt claims that the comparative success of biological models of natural selection is facilitated by the presence of a genetic. Wimsatt ([1999]. . 2012 . to the long tradition of research in this area. it is impossible to consistently identify the units of cultural selection. he argues. 281) claims that. or of Mendelian genetics. Darwin developed evolutionary theory quite extensively without much information about the mechanisms of variation and heredity. in part. unlike cultural cases. p. the social role which places them in a parenting relation. p. It is not obvious. however. . . models of cultural selection analogous to models of genetic selection cannot possibly be enlightening. genomes.]. there are many biological systems that defy rigid definitions of parentage. there are no cases in biology where: (1a) an individual has more than two parents [. Second. by comparison. . The success of genetics is attributable. Wimsatt argues that it is not possible to identify the cultural analogues of the units of selection and environmental interaction. that biological evolution is intrinsically clearer than cultural evolution in this way. K. Contrary to Wimsatt’s claim. and species’ (Wimsatt [1999]. Problems in generating standard memetic models ‘crop up in parentage.

It also contradicts point (1b). The recipient bacterium will pass on its modified genome to its daughter-clone progeny. Thus. sperm are necessary to trigger the developmental processes. however. occasionally (and the necessary conditions are still not well understood) the mating does result in cross-fertilization between the species. we may Downloaded from http://bjps. asexually reproducing Amazon Mollies. but a male bee receives all of his genes from his mother. bee heredity does not obey point (1b) since the parental contributions are radically unequal. the number of individuals from which an offspring has obtained its hereditary information is limited only by the number of cells that have engaged its mother cell in conjugation.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. Hamilton’s ([1964a]. In theory. contrary to point (1c). the offspring of these pairings are not hybrids of the two species. This contradicts point (1a) that there are never more than two parents. however. A female bee inherits two-thirds of her genes from her mother and onethird from her father. Surprisingly. a donor bacterium can transfer its entire genome to a recipient. 2012 . Should it appear that I have been excavating obscure examples that are notable for being biologically exceptional. and bacteria. environmental interventions.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 465 These claims are inaccurate since biological systems do violate these categories. Therefore. since the number of parents and the degree of their contributions vary from generation to generation and from cell to cell. biologists have successfully pursued genetic explanations of bacterial evolution. the Amazon Molly irregularly varies its parental hereditary contributions. Usually this mating only serves to trigger the cloning process. I present a phenomenon that is as common as they come.oxfordjournals. bacterial conjugation also undermines point (1c). since the parental contributions are radically unequal. Despite these complications. Three examples of biological systems that do not approximate the standard single or double parental hereditary models are bees. fish. Amazon Mollies produce fully viable clone eggs. Indeed. Bacteria undergo a process of genetic exchange called conjugation during which one bacterium will insert a portion of its genetic material into another bacterium. Since a genetic approach has been successful despite flexible definitions of parentage in biological models. The South American Amazon Molly (Poecilia formosa) is a particularly fascinating fish. Although bacterial reproduction takes place by asexual cloning. but develop into female. an Amazon Molly will mate with males of either of the related species Atlantic Molly (Poecilia mexicana) or Sailfin Molly (Poecilia latipinna). but conjugation is usually interrupted by contingent. Finally. Thus. Most generations of this species consist of asexually reproducing female clones. These examples indicate that the same complications responsible for Wimsatt’s first obstacle to a memetic approach to cultural evolution also apply to biological evolution. [1964b]) description of the haplo-diploid structure of bee inheritance has been celebrated as a triumph of genetic selectionism (Dawkins [1976]).

While I agree with Wimsatt that pluralism with respect to the biological analogues of cultural units is warranted. however. since no such gene-like architecture gives structure to cultural evolutionary systems. There is insufficient reason. it is unreasonable to expect memetics to produce comparable success. What is needed is a case study to demonstrate the viability of memetic approaches to cultural selection. Wimsatt’s position implies that Darwin would not have been able to achieve the successes he did had there not been some common hereditary architecture.oxfordjournals. the prospects for it are poor. to rule out this approach a priori. some cultural systems do appear to be based upon very strict architectural constraints. which he contends is more open to a pluralist view of the cultural units and whereby the categorization of cultural units is determined by the characteristics of the particular system under investigation (Wimsatt [1986]). Crozier yet expect cultural models to follow their example. Further. I will argue that a strict biological analogue is not necessary for a cultural evolutionary model to be successful. Consequently. Wimsatt concludes that. Downloaded from http://bjps. I will return to this point later.466 G. 2012 6 Fourth Objection: Biological Analogue for Cultural Units Another source of controversy for cultural selection theory lies in the difficulty of finding a biological analogue for cultural units. Furthermore. This further suggests that cultural evolutionists can learn from the ways in which evolutionary biologists have contended with analogous difficulties. much as biological viruses can be . a precise and consistent analogue for memes with a biological evolutionary model has not been provided. to extend the genetic model to cultural change successfully.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. I disagree that this undermines the value of alternative approaches to cultural selection and necessitates a developmental approach. caution is advised when adopting any close analogy between cultural and biological selection entities (such as traits or viruses) since these can place inappropriate constraints on cultural selection theory. K. he argues. and this undermines the feasibility of memetic approaches to cultural evolution. D. Wimsatt advocates a developmental approach. despite his ignorance of its structure.1 Regarding strict analogues Wimsatt ([1999]) contends that. 6. For example. But. cultural units must be characterizable as analogous to some particular biological unit. social contagion theory and memetics can be expected to provide distinct descriptions of the same cultural system that are not only fully compatible but also inter-reducible. such as traits or viruses: a successful extension would have to specify which entities in the new system are analogous to entities that are central in the old model.

Downloaded from http://bjps. 2012 6. memetics’ genealogical or population genetic approach provides vertical descriptions of cultural lineages or of changes in the frequencies of different versions (or alleles) of cultural units. however. It should be remembered that the fitness of a cultural unit consists in its ability to get itself reproduced and consequently to be represented in higher proportions in the cultural milieu. There is good reason to remain open-minded about which. strict biological analogue is required for cultural selection theory—even one that is developmental.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 467 studied both epidemiologically and genealogically (Marsden [1998]): both approaches describe the same objects operating according to the same laws. For example. I quite agree that an evolutionary model must restrict itself to answering the questions ‘what has evolved’ and ‘how has it done so. and indeed whether any. This approach takes snapshots of this distribution at various points in time and space and compares them to determine what factors might explain the observed similarities and differences. but apparent in other approaches as well) tend to shift focus from the differential fitnesses and consequent evolution of cultural entities to the effects that cultural entities have on the differential fitnesses and consequent evolution of biological organisms. For example. Analogies between cultural units and the traits of organisms blur this vital distinction.oxfordjournals. are more vulnerable to misinterpretation than others. This approach tracks the continuous evolution of the unit through successive generations. On the other hand.’ Why one trait is more fit than another in a given context cannot be addressed until the evolutionary model is supplemented with information from another source. yet they assume distinct vantage points from which to describe these operations. Sober ([2000]) contends that a model of cultural evolution cannot explain why a meme is so psychologically attractive. social contagion theory’s epidemiological approach is horizontal because it looks at a cross-section of the distribution and frequencies of various cultural units throughout a biological population or other body. The horizontal and vertical descriptions of selection of the same evolutionary system are complementary because they reveal different facets of the same process.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6.2 Regarding the trait analogue Some analogues. in the second edition of Philosophy of Biology. analogies between cultural units and the traits of organisms (very common in evolutionary epistemology. This point is central to clarifying many misconceptions about the application of natural selection to cultural evolution: a cultural unit’s reproductive success is not equivalent to the reproductive successes of the organisms in whose cultural system the unit exists. An explanation of the fitness granted to a flying bird by its wings must refer—even if only implicitly—to the principles of aerodynamics (Christensen . On the one hand.

org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. Psychological appeal means appeal to brains. Some of my colleagues have suggested to me that this account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question. This justification may be grounded in biological explanations. They want to find some way in which having a brain like that improves gene survival. in the environment provided by human culture. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. This is further complicated by the intricate interactions that can exist between the fitnesses of cultural units and the biological fitnesses of the organisms through which the cultural units are propagated. and so on. cultural. Dawkins refers to blind faith as a successful cultural adaptation: ‘The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple . biochemical. it is misleading for Sober to use the term psychological attractiveness synonymously with cultural fitness because the factors shaping the fitness of a cultural trait may be external to the psychological state of the organism. 207) makes a point similar to Sober’s when discussing why the meme for god has been so successful: The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. In the last analysis they wish always to go back to ‘biological advantage. the more compelling will be the case that a genuine cultural adaptation exists. One of the interesting challenges of describing cultural evolutionary processes is to explain the relative fitnesses of memes. but alternatives are available: epistemological. Downloaded from http://bjps. However. is none the less effective for being imaginary. a good scientific explanation for why a trait is fitter than its alternatives may require that more attention be paid to non-psychological systems. While cultural traits might spend a phase of their reproductive cycles in the psychologies of organisms. Sober’s term psychological attractiveness is analogous to describing the fitness of a physiological trait as its genetic attractiveness—it is descriptively accurate but explanatorily impoverished. if only in the form of a meme with high survival value. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which. God exists. such as those governed by the organism’s habitat.oxfordjournals. 2012 Dawkins’ colleagues are motivated to pursue biological explanations because the factors identified as responsible for psychological appeal require further justification. The greater the support for the causal categorization of the relevant memetic environment. Elsewhere. K. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.’ To them it is not good enough to say that the idea of a god has ‘great psychological appeal. or infective power. and brains are shaped by natural selection of genes in gene-pools. Crozier and Hooker [1999]).’ They want to know why it has great psychological appeal. like a doctor’s placebo.468 G. Dawkins ([1976]. p. D.

arguably. Can we say that blind faith is itself a trait. . and it should be able to accommodate contrary evidence without appealing to ad hoc reasoning. the purely cultural or psychological nature of the trait’s environment sheds doubt on the trait’s ontological status. it should be able to predict that other features with similar functions would have similar fitness advantages. those of their host organisms. and indeed often in conflict with. This example appeals to a notion of rationality in its assignment of fitness.oxfordjournals.3 Regarding the virus analogue The viral analogy is less treacherous than that of traits of organisms.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. should indicate what features of the environment an adaptation has the function of accommodating. 2012 6. which enhances the social statuses and thereby the fitnesses of the individuals who have it. (2) Neutral: Commensalism. including the Lamarckian objection. Downloaded from http://bjps. p. and as such can avoid circular reasoning. such as a meme for suicide. However. such as the meme for a particular nursery rhyme. insofar as the fitnesses of viruses are understood to be importantly distinct from. The effect of a cultural unit on the organisms through which it is copied will fall into one of the following categories: (1) Negative: Competition. or is it rather a feature of other traits like religious belief and political ideologies? Is it instead a kind of psychological predisposition? Our ability to identify adaptations depends on the clarity with which we can define the relevant causal relationships within the evolutionary environment. The conceptual ambiguity surrounding the fitness relationship between cultural and biological selection units is responsible for many misconceptions about cultural selection. but that the trait itself undermines rational inquiry. a meme for a fashion trend. which is clearly detrimental to the fitness of the individuals demonstrating the behaviour. To avoid blurring this vital distinction. 213). An evolutionary theory. If it is true that once we adopt the cultural trait of blind faith the only way to eliminate it is rational inquiry. (3) Positive: Mutualism.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 469 unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry’ (Dawkins [1976]. however. which is arguably irrelevant to the fitness of the individuals repeating the rhyme. caution is advised when using the traits of organisms as analogies for cultural units. such as. Cultural evolution should not be expected to provide an explanation for the psychological attractiveness of a trait any more than biological evolution should explain why a bird’s wings are aerodynamically sound: that is where the theory of aerodynamics comes in. then the only way to avoid carrying this trait is to not adopt it in the first place.

This distinction becomes confused when memes are described as traits of organisms. however. rather than viewing memes as objects possessed by individuals or existing as patterns of information in the brains of individuals. as will be demonstrated. Gatherer ([1998]) argues that memes must be defined as cultural artefacts rather than as information patterns in the minds of individuals: . as beliefs. words. 2012 Notice that this point dovetails with Wimsatt’s critique that memetics is based on the absence of a common hereditary architecture underlying cultural evolutionary processes. and also with the previous discussion on the replicator– interactor distinction. if we are to have it at all. must be defined in a purely behaviourist manner. then we need units of replication/selection. this kind of ‘meme frequency’ statistic. Downloaded from http://bjps. Employing a viral analogy. The mistake lies in the frequent assumption that individuals have memes.470 G.oxfordjournals. requires care of a different sort. the individuals through which the memes are transmitted should fade from view. and other cultural artefacts (Dawkins [1976]). Gatherer ([1998]) argues that memetics has been hindered by the description of memes as contagious beliefs. we cannot produce meme frequencies. Gatherer ([1998]) writes: If we are to have a cultural evolutionary theory. models adopting a viral analogy should be discarded in favour of models wherein memes are defined in terms of observable properties such as songs. to develop memetics as a credible empirical enterprise. Gatherer recommends that. The problem lies in the tendency to locate cultural selection units in the minds of individuals—for example. skills. [1983])—which renders the primary subject matter of memetics essentially unobservable. defined as the proportion of individuals in a population that possess or have a meme. It also provides the means to clarify the value of this distinction. Crozier This viral approach to memetics provides a way to track the relationship between the fitnesses of organisms and memes while maintaining a distinction between these two quantities.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. we cannot assign memes to individuals with sufficient reliability or regularity. D. There are some circumstances in which we can derive a statistic of this sort but. Gene frequencies are absolutely necessary to population genetics. Though this observation leads Wimsatt to advocate a developmental approach. In a sense. as will be shown. K. Gatherer is led. But because. and if there is to be a population memetics we correspondingly need to have unambiguous meme frequencies. rather. and the meme concept would seem to be as good a way as any of approaching this problem. The viral analogy lends itself well to cultural selection by providing the conceptual tools for both horizontal epidemiological descriptions and vertical population genetic approaches. or talents (Dawkins [1982]. to suggest ways to overcome this obstacle to memetic models of cultural selection. Windsor knots.

Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory By contrast. p. and that consequently population memetic studies are impossible. that individual carries those genes around in its body for the duration of its life. Nevertheless. Hull contends that it ultimately sneaks in a commitment to the nonexistence of these entities. Hull ([2000]) objects to Gatherer’s position. then at least analytically. and in evolutionary biology. But these three dimensions of the evolutionary process are inextricably fused and confounded in the . 7 Fifth Objection: Environmental Interaction The final source of controversy surrounding cultural selection that I will discuss concerns the difficulty in distinguishing various phases in cultural evolutionary processes. but they are abstractions which relate directly to a physical reality. i. one may derive an unambiguous estimation of gene frequencies which are comparable between one population and another. and selection—if not physically.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. individuals do have genes. They may or may not pass them on to the next generation of individuals. 471 Downloaded from http://bjps. Of course genes. in our models of the evolutionary process. Gene frequencies are of course abstractions. ı behaviourist assumptions that have long been rejected in the philosophy of science. arguing that it rests on na¨ve. Such a strong conclusion. and many other theoretical entities are not directly observed and yet are acceptable aspects of successful scientific theories. However. each from the other. Though Gatherer’s argument is motivated by a desire to eliminate commitments to unobservable entities (here mental entities or the beliefs of others). While viral approaches to cultural selection need not altogether eliminate the introduction of theoretical entities.oxfordjournals. the structure of our theories supposes that we can separate out processes of heredity. a strict analogy between biological and cultural selection is not necessary. A population geneticist may derive allele frequencies as the proportion of individuals who carry one gene sequence or another. the reality of gene sequences within the bodies of individuals. Thus. providing the required technical methods are available. these introductions should be minimized. and in particular the role of environmental interaction. just as it is for the analogy of traits of organisms. whatever the reproductive success or otherwise of an individual. quarks. Wimsatt ([1999]. would rule out the inclusion of any theoretical entities in science. pure quantitative values. Hull objects. Although care is in order when adopting a strict viral analogy for cultural units. Gatherer’s quasi-behaviourist argument has a valuable lesson: caution must be taken when identifying theoretical entities in cultural selection theory. Still.e. 288) writes: In genetics. the latter’s propensity for masking selective forces in cultural evolution is more pernicious. 2012 Gatherer argues that we cannot assign these meme artefacts to individuals with sufficient precision and regularity to measure meme frequencies in a population. development.

This objection to memetic approaches to cultural selection theory hinges on the opacity of the meme–environment relationship. D. Downloaded from http://bjps. While memetic replication seems clear enough. Crozier process of cultural evolution. . and the memotype–phemotype distinction—all three of which have been central to the debates considered throughout this paper.) But for culture. As Hull ([2000]. each on a par with the others in the development of a generalized theory of evolution by natural selection. Genetics. Instead. vertical versus horizontal transmission. One reason why conceptual change tends to look deceptively Lamarckian is that this distinction is not easy to make in memetic change. memetic environmental interaction does not. 56–7) writes: The distinction between Lamarckian and non-Lamarckian inheritance turns on the genotype-phenotype distinction. which touches on the themes of environmental interaction. all selection processes should be taken as special cases of natural selection. even though we have made some excellent beginnings. The reason that this conclusion is unsettling is that we do not have a very clear idea of memetic environmental interaction. then memes must determine which transmissions are vertical in meme-based selection. 2012 Like other controversies explored in this paper. (That is largely a work for the future.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. . I believe that it will be shown with increasing clarity that we cannot do important parts of evolutionary biology either without recognising a central role for development there. Hull ([2000]) argues that researchers have adhered too rigidly to the analogy with biological evolution. pp. Wimsatt contends that the indistinguishability of the stages in cultural reproductive cycles necessitates a developmental systems approach to cultural evolution. Wimsatt’s position presupposes that memetic approaches to cultural selection must have an analogue of the genotype–phenotype relationship. but what counts as environmental interaction [?] [.472 G. . Memes play the role of genes in replication.] If genes determine which transmissions are vertical in traditional gene-based selection. developmental biology.oxfordjournals. K. however. we cannot even get started. This happens because of the pivotal role development and the life cycle assume in cultural transmission. this objection assumes an analogy between genetics and memetics that is stricter than necessary for cultural applications of natural selection to succeed. this assumption is unwarranted. and epidemiology are but three of a plethora of biological arenas in which the effects of natural selection manifest. The frameworks provided by the models of any one of these fields should not necessarily be tightly held onto while exploring putative cases of natural selection in other media. which in turn has caused cultural selection theory to suffer.

memes are not in the least like genes. Of course. nucleotides. Various sub-fields in evolutionary biology uniquely modified the gene concept for the model systems they study. Hull ([2000]. introns. they did not mention that they themselves had already destroyed much of its clarity. Mendelian genes were initially largely defined operationally by positing the number and kind of genes that could produce the observed patterns of inheritance. 45–6) also contends that the disanalogies between the two are overstated: Given an incredibly simplistic notion of genes. is particulate and concerns only pairs of alleles at a single locus (For a response. [1998b]). lots of genetic material could not be subdivided into distinct genes by Mendelian mechanisms. regulatory genes. Conversely. disanalogies between genetics and memetics are often based on the misunderstanding that the subject matter of genetics is relatively simple and that its concepts are clearly defined. p. anthropologists and sociologists tend to be well versed in the details of social groups. and more than two alternative memes can compete with each other. To them genetics looks pretty simple. Mendelian geneticists complained that by terming all these molecularly defined entities ‘genes. but it was still genetic material and might one day be revealed by other mechanisms. a strict analogy between traditional evolutionary biology and cultural selection theory is not necessary. junk DNA. p.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. [1999]). In contrast. see Wilkins [1998a]. One problem with interdisciplinary work is that any one worker is likely to know much more about one area than any of the others. and operons (Wilkins [1998a]). So both memes and genes are likely to have comparably complex structures. 47) argues: Of course. Downloaded from http://bjps.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 473 Although. As Hull ([2000]. The genetics that was incorporated into population genetics was Mendelian genetics. It was Williams’ selectionist conception of a gene as ‘any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times its rate of endogenous change’ (Williams [1966]. as Hull points out. This operational definition was not employed with much consistency. genes are nothing like beads on a string. Of course. pp. Even limiting oneself to Mendelian breeding experiments. even more gene concepts were introduced—structural genes. codons. Mendelian genetics. 2012 According to Hull. Contrary to what we were all taught in high school.’ molecular biologists were destroying the clarity of the Mendelian gene.oxfordjournals. exons. 25) . one does not need to know very much Mendelian genetics to know that Mendelian genes are not all that particulate and that numerous alternatives to Mendelian diploid inheritance exist (Crow [1979]. Geneticists know much more about the complexities of genetics than of social groups. memes are not all that particulate. additional genetic units were discovered—mutons. you name it. cistrons. With the advent of molecular biology. so the critics claim.

then.] why wait until this definition is extrapolated to memes to raise [. Some of these objections present serious challenges to the field—challenges that must be addressed from within cultural selection theory. . you are in a better position to run more sophisticated empirical investigations [. 2012 Hull defends memetics on the grounds that it is still a young discipline and expects that the necessary developments will take place as the field matures. Hull advocates ignoring in-principle objections to memetics. Unless memetic traits are transmitted differentially to the next cultural generation due to a process of environmental interaction. the evolution of the system is merely a product of random drift rather than selection. K.474 G. 49) argues: Crude empirical investigations lead you to develop your theoretical perspective more clearly and extensively. Rather. In general.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. .] objections to it? Williams’ definition of evolutionary genes is just as difficult to apply as is its memetic correlate. if any. p. 48) observes: [. . . 8 Conclusion One theme that dominates objections to cultural selection theory is the identification of disanalogies between cultural and biological systems. memeticists should move from general discussions to focusing on empirical investigations. . . In biological selection processes.oxfordjournals. Crozier that Dawkins extended to his notion of replicators and ultimately to memes. definitions of key concepts. These challenges indicate genuine .] I want to urge memeticists to ignore the in-principle objections that have been raised to memetics no matter how cogent they may turn out to be and proceed to develop their theory in the context of attempts to test it. and as it improves. areas of science can possibly meet them. as Hull ([2000]. What cultural selectionists. p. critics of memetics assume standards so high for scientific knowledge that few. but an explanation of cultural traits as adaptations to particular environmental circumstances. whether based on disanalogies between cultural and biological instances of natural selection. . But. must be primarily concerned with is generating no mere description of cultural change. Wimsatt’s objection is based on the difficulty of characterizing environmental interaction in cultural systems. Downloaded from http://bjps.] memeticists cannot begin to understand what the science of memetics is until they generate some general beliefs about conceptual change and try to test them [. as Hull ([2000]. D. . traits are identified by the fact that the proportion of the population in which they are found in successive generations is dependent upon some common environmental factor. or other higher-level theoretical debates.

] Such a case study is not likely to be of a highly ambitious nature (e.] there is at least one cultural process that is of an evolutionary nature. significant though they may be. Another is based on the absence of a common hereditary architecture in cultural systems analogous to the structure of DNA. The absence of theoretical and definitional solidarity amongst proponents of cultural evolution is likely to persist until more empirical investigations are conducted. explaining complex human institutions). As Edmonds ([2002]) contends.oxfordjournals. . in response to the objection that cultural selection fails because it lacks high-fidelity replication. 2012 . and they are based on auxiliary assumptions that are fairly well established in evolutionary biology: that is. and that the interaction between culture and environment is not well defined. . or they are not relevant to the application of selection theory. where ‘evolutionary’ is taken in a narrow sense.g. . but of a limited nature about which good quality data is available. For example. I expect that cultural selection—and in particular. I have argued that consensus underlying the replicator–interactor distinction requires re-examination. One such objection is based on the absence of a mechanism guaranteeing the high-fidelity replication of cultural units. The objection that cultural evolutionary systems are inherently Lamarckian is one such example. Once one such case study has been established Downloaded from http://bjps.Reconsidering Cultural Selection Theory 475 differences between biological and cultural systems. I have argued that the failure of these criticisms is attributable to two kinds of misconceptions: those about evolutionary biology and those about evolution by natural selection. it is essential that cultural selection produces case studies that can clarify the relevant distinctions. I have argued that these objections. however. This needs to be robust against serious criticism [. either the articulated disanalogies are illusory. Other criticisms of cultural selection theory present less serious challenges to the field. . these are also based on disanalogies between biological and cultural systems. With respect to objections where the consensus in biological and evolutionary theory is potentially misled.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. Like the challenges previously considered. such investigations must clearly demonstrate that: [. case studies clarifying the role of environmental interaction—can produce examples that will inform the requisite reformulation of the units of selection. there is a consensus in theoretical and empirical biology that the identified biological disanalogue is essential to evolutionary biology and to natural selection in general. There may well be many other memetic processes in the world but the point of this one is that it is inarguably demonstrable. A further such objection is based on the absence of clear phases in the cultural unit’s life cycle: that the memotype–phemotype distinction does not characterize all cultural selection processes. are not fatal to the field but rather indicate areas that require further clarification. This paper has examined several objections in this category.

Sandra Larsen. John Nicholas. 182). Scott MacDougall-Shackleton. and not just based on vague plausibility. since the fitnesses of song-types are determined by their transmission properties with respect to the acoustic features of various environments. p. Robert Batterman. D. Crozier more ambitious cases can be attempted. According to Edmonds ([2002]). It must: (1) exhibit a replicator mechanism that is physical and not just in the mind. bird songs are not just in the mind. Further. for a case study to be sufficiently compelling to establish credibility for the field of memetics within the broader scientific community.476 G. the songs are simple. (2) exhibit lineages with sufficient longevity that they could be capable of adapting to the environment. (5) be unambitious—limited and with good-quality data. 2012 Acknowledgements I am most grateful to Wayne Myrvold for his careful attention to several drafts of this paper. have clearly recognizable variations. Bird songs show promise of providing such a case study. I also thank William Harper.org/ at The University of Montana on February 6. but more ambitious cases will not be believed until some more straightforward cases are established first. The units of replication and interaction in bird songs are identifiable with ‘high inter-observer reliability’ (Lynch [1996]. There is a large and mature body of research available on the mechanisms of bird song transmission. it must satisfy five criteria. (4) generate results consistent with the theorems of population genetics. William Wimsatt.oxfordjournals. A case study analysing the apparent acoustic adaptations in the songs of the South American Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) will be developed in a further paper. Unlike beliefs. Each bird is imprinted with a single song-type during its fledgling year. they can be heard. K. The most salient objections to cultural selection may be resolved upon the generation of such a concrete case study. rendering a population memetic approach to tracking song frequencies feasible. (3) demonstrate the relative successes of competing memes as correlating with comparative advantages in the mechanism and context of replication. and identified. In many bird species where songs are learned. Downloaded from http://bjps. recorded. the model should reveal valuable information about the interaction between cultural selection and environmental factors. Rather. and are subject to geographical variation and temporal change. and as such are a good starting place for a memetic approach to cultural evolutionary processes. .

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