Sunday, August 13, 2017

The emergence of cumulative culture, or: What Dawkins got right

This is a follow up to my post, Gestalt Switch in the Emergence of Human Culture. I want a way to differentiate my version of culture from the current ‘orthodoxy’ (gene-culture coevolution, dual inheritance theory). At the moment I’m thinking that the emergence of cumulative culture is the Rubicon. But why and how?

In orthodox cultural evolution theory fitness is evaluated at the biological phenotype, and only at the phenotype. Dawkins’ insight, I believe, is that, to understand cultural evolution, we need to think of entities where fitness is evaluated with respect to some (purely) cultural entity, rather than and more or less independently of fitness for biological individuals carrying those cultural features.

Here’s what I think: It is the emergence of cumulative culture, however that happened, that created an arena in which purely cultural entities could survive and thrive, or not. What determines fitness for preservation in the domain of cumulative culture?

However it arose, that domain is the coupled nervous systems of interacting humans. And to account for how it operates we need a cultural analog of both the biological gene and the biological phenotype.

Now we have sharability, in effect, as a fitness criterion for cultural entities. They are fit because they afford us opportunities for social interaction (like mutual grooming among infra-human primates?). They may well afford other benefits, but sharability is always a factor.

* * * * *

With this in mind we can take a look at what Dawkins has to say about memes. First, though, I want to start with the second paragraph of The Selfish Gene (p. 12):
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
Dawkins then goes on to argue that stability in the biological world depends on molecules he will call replicators (p. 15). At first these replicators were free-floaters in the primeval biomolecular soup. In time they became (p. 20) “genes, and we are their survival machines.

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. Stability is the foundation of cumulative culture. Without it groups would be continually ‘reinventing the wheel’ because the wheel just wouldn’t stay invented. Just how cumulative culture emerged, that’s obviously an important issue, but let’s shelve it for the purposes of this post and take a look at why Dawkins hypothesized the concept of memes.

He offers these remarks in the course of talking about the god “meme” (193):
Some of my colleagues have suggested to me that this account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question. In the last analysis they wish always to go back to ‘biological advantage’. To them it is not good enough to say that the idea of a god has 'great psychological appeal'. They want to know why it has great psychological appeal. Psychological appeal means appeal to brains, and brains are shaped by natural selection of genes in gene-pools. They want to find some way in which having a brain like that improves gene survival.
“Appeal to brains” is the operative phrase. Later he’ll remark (199):
This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
I find the phrase “advantageous to itself” a bit iffy, though it’s consistent with his arguments about the ‘selfishness’ of genes, which I accept. My point here is that Dawkins is quite clear that, in positing the existence of memes he’s up to more than talking about a way of inheriting behavior from one generation to another. Somehow culture is a different arena for evolutionary processes, though one necessarily coupled with biology.

Orthodox cultural evolution theory doesn’t have much to say about what makes culture “appeal to brains”–though Dan Sperber’s theory of cultural “attraction” is relevant here. Unfortunately, Dawkins was unable to formulate a useful concept of “appeal to brains”, nor was his acolyte in this, Daniel Dennett. To get it right, or at least a plausible first approximation, you need to think seriously about just how brains CAN communicate cultural materials. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to that over the years, so I won’t try to summarize that work here. For the curious, I recommend:
  • Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books 2001). Here I use Walter Freeman’s work on complex neurodynamics to, in effect, define the domain of cumulative culture, at least for music (chapters 2 and 3), which sets the stage for defining attractors in this domain as the cultural analog to the biological phenotype (chapter 8 and 9).
  • “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture. This paper builds on my work in Beethoven’s Anvil and develops the idea of a coordinator as the cultural analog to the biological meme.
The following two working papers are directed at Dennett’s discussions of memes (prior to his most recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, which I’ve not read).


  1. It's worth noting that chimpanzees have cululative cultural evolution - just with a lower complexity ceiling. My "chimpanzee cumulative cultural evolution" article lists some of the evidence for this. That doesn't mean that it is not important, of course.