Monday, October 29, 2018

The key question in cultural evolution: What entity is the direct target of the evolutionary dynamic?

Answer: The cultural object or being, whatever it is, not the biological. Dawkins called it a meme and the name’s stuck around, but it is no longer associated with a useful idea. When Dawkins originally proposed the idea in The Selfish Gene he wasn’t sure whether the proposed entity was a thing in the external world, or a thing in the mind. And perhaps it was both. Are we talking about the tune that everyone can hear, a public entity, or a tune that exists in someone’s mind (and which is conveyed to other minds via a pubic entity).

Dennett decided it must be a thing in the mind, he was taken up on it, and the game was lost.

Dual inheritance theory is becoming popular these days. Humans inherit behavioral traits via the genes and via social learning. But, and here’s the point, the evolutionary dynamic is conceptualized as being centered on the biological human, generally a human in a social group. That’s what differentiates it from Dawkinsian memetics. Dawkins got that one right. The others,’s not that culture doesn’t benefit biological human individuals. Of course it does. It has to, otherwise it couldn’t happen much less thrive. But the specifically cultural evolutionary dynamic is operating on the cultural entity, the tune.

As for the tune, there’s a bunch of gene-like entities out there in public space, and there’s a phenotype-like entity in (collective) neural space. But I’m not going over that here and now. It’s all over the place in the blog and in my working papers (e.g. here,


  1. Not read much of Dennet or Dawkins et. al., dennet is entirely ahistorical Dawkins deploys a Dr Who style philosophical mode on occasions, which is worse.

    I only caught the polemic social group building aspect, its where things seemed to be going 'wrong' for me. But

    I think internally restrictions are placed to stop the subject going out of control.

    My take was it may be important for biology to think like this. I have no reason to.

  2. One thing that's going on is that the meme idea allows Dennett and also Dawkins to explain religion. From a (crude) biological POV, religion is full of irrational ideas and practices and so makes no biological sense. It's detrimental to reproduction in the long term. But if we also have these meme thingies evolving along their own track and in competition with (rational) biology, then – Shazam! – we have an explanation for the persistence of religious belief. It's nonsense of course, but so what. Those pesky memes are at it again!

  3. You could give the same P.O.V. for politics. But that would have created an awkward physician heal thy self situation.