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The life of culture

Sometimes culture seems to have a life of its own. You catch wind of a juicy bit of gossip and just have to tell your friends. You hear a pop song a few times and suddenly find yourself humming the tune. You unthinkingly adopt the vocabulary and turns of phrase of your circle of friends. The latest fashions compel you to fork over your money, succumbing to what is de rigueur.

But does culture really have a life of its own? Are cultural trends, fashions, ideas, and norms like organisms, evolving and weaving our minds and bodies into an ecological web? Some have answered a resolute yes. The biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, is a strong proponent of this idea and he introduced a term — meme — to name these cultural beasts. In popular parlance, memes now mainly refer to things gone viral on the Internet — think Grumpy Cat or What Does the Fox Say? — not the totality of culture. But could it be that culture is composed entirely of memes and that, like viruses, they are adapted to enter our body and coerce it to make copies before finding a new host to parasitize?

To answer this question, we need to consider whether phrases like “the evolution of culture” can be understood to be more than mere metaphor. Does it make sense to apply Darwinian evolutionary theory to culture? From a distance, it seems obvious that in culture there is variation (multiple variants of cultural traditions), heritability (culture is transmitted from generation to generation), and fitness differences (some cultural variants tend to fare better than others). And because heritable variation in fitness is the cornerstone of Darwinism, we should be free to use the Darwinian framework, as well as the specific models developed in contemporary evolutionary biology, to make sense of cultural dynamics. This straightforward view, however, has received considerable criticism. One critique holds that cultures are composed not of discrete chunks like organisms; they are less like mosaics and more like paintings made of countless, continuous shades of color. And if culture is not made of discrete chunks, how can we conceptualize the success (fitness) of cultural elements?

The chief concern of our article is to examine these questions. The fitness of an entity is based on its ability to survive and reproduce. When the entity in question is an organism, things are relatively simple: We can usually readily distinguish one organism from another, and we know what it is for them to live, reproduce, and die. But what is it for a cultural unit to live or die? Like zombies rising from corpses presumed long dead, cultural variants can be lost in books or film, only to recrudesce upon rediscovery. And what counts as reproduction? If I get a pop song stuck in my head, has the song reproduced? If I am recorded humming the song, should this count as reproduction?

Image by Grant Ramsey. Used with permission.
Image by Grant Ramsey. Used with permission.

The problem of cultural fitness can be made much more tractable. One of the major problems with an evolutionary account of culture is trying to individuate and count cultural units. We propose a way to borrow the relative ease of counting organisms and tie this to cultural units. Instead of thinking of culture as disembodied memes, we propose taking an organism-centered approach. Each human can possess or fail to possess a cultural variant, and the only way for this variant to be passed on is for another person to adopt the variant. Cultural variants are thus counted only once per person, relieving us of having to worry about individuating multiple copies of memes inside our notebooks or closet.

This idea of counting traits only once per organism is typical of evolutionary biology. To see how a biologist might study the evolution of plant varieties, consider a species with two variants, one with all white flowers and the other with all purple flowers. If the goal of the study is to say whether there has been evolution in flower color taking place, the biologist counts the number of plants with white flowers and the number of plants with purple flowers; she does not merely count disembodied flowers, since this would be to mistake growth (making more flowers on a plant) with evolution (making more plants of a particular variety). For the same reasons, cultural evolution should be based on counts of humans with cultural variants, not copies of disembodied variants. Taking this view also has the advantage that culture need not always come in isolated packages. Just as humans can have discrete, countable traits (having two arms), they can also have continuously variable (what biologists call quantitative) traits like height.

Although the organism-centered framework offered here does not solve all the problems of applying a Darwinian evolutionary framework to cultural systems, it goes some way toward breaking down the barrier to allow the light of evolution to shine on cultural phenomena.

Featured image credit: Human evolution silhouettes, by Vector Open Stock. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Natalia

    This is all wrong, I’m sorry, Trying to find meaning in Culture as a whole by measuring it through what could only be consider as Social Darwinism is at least a mistake. Let the humanistic sciences take over the endeavor of answering and especially formulating such questions, please.

  2. Helga Vierich

    “In every culture, there is persistence of variation in “memes” stemming from a tendency to conserve old traditions and practices, often over a very long time, which exists side-by-side with constant tinkering and creativity. Ideological tension between conservative and innovative social forces is generated by this interface within the cultural cognitive niche. In other words, humans were shaped by culture to be retentive tinkerers.

    Cultural information has fidelity and cumulative variation: by definition, is a kind of “swarm intelligence”. In each culture there is a common pool of information that all adults share, but beyond that we always see encyclopedias of knowledge and skill that are usually very limited in distribution. For problems requiring highly specialized bodies of knowledge and skills, in every culture, people tend to call in their experts.

    To explain how humans evolved a cognitive niche called culture, we also might need to explain the development of high variability of minor personality and cognitive phenotypes within each human deme, for it is this variation that make such hive or swarm mind phenomenon (cultures) possible. Selection which serves to increase the frequency of phenotypes that are sensitive to innovation and novelty needed to be balanced by selection enlisting phenotypic traits capable of methodical retention and “re-construction” of information and skills. So how could natural selection – and sexual selection – that achieves this balance?

    I think that if we look at the variety of skills and talents that we value in on another, we might find the answer to that. In any given culture, are there are some people attracted to mates who are innovative and like novelty, just as there are people attracted to those with conservative ideas, or those who are masters of older skills and technology.

    Human mating systems, already complicated by intense and long term emotional ties to sexual partners, appear quite different from those of related species of apes, obviously constitute far more complexity than can be explained just by male preferences for certain hip-to-waist ratios, or by females looking to find a good provider and protector. Possessing a fine singing voice, ability to compose new music, or play musical instruments, ability to produce tasty meals from common ingredients, ability to create comedy, to solve interpersonal disputes, to run fast, to track animals, to make a better mousetrap, to design a better digging tool, a more comfortable garment, to orchestrate a more effective ritual event… all of these and many more individual abilities and talents can attract one person to another. Of course that is only a beginning, as shared values, compatible temperaments, similar backgrounds, and even similar tastes for adventure, also play a role, and, as if that was not enough, it seems people are also attracted to opposites!

    Genetic polymorphisms affecting dopamine such as the DR4 variants , appear to be related to novelty seeking, while other genetic regions have been linked to retentive and hoarding and conservative behavior. In both cases it seems that carriers might be very beneficial to have in a population, even though the behavior of the rare individual, who gets two copies of these variants, might be a bit extreme. There is, furthermore, evidence of many hundred, perhaps even thousands of genes, each with many possible alleles (variants) which influence cognitive function and behavioral variability.

    I note that these polymorphisms in many cases appear to be very old, and may well have played a significant role in developing and expanding the overall cognitive capacity for culture. Clearly we are the descendants of those populations where these polymorphisms occurred. Indeed natural (and sexual) selection might have conspired to keep adding all kinds of variants and spreading them throughout the human genome. Human variation in temperament and personalities is relatively simple compared to variation in interests and passions. And all this complexity interacts. It could be plotted on a bell curve of ratios of individuality to collectivity – with novelty seeking hipsters and anal-retentive fusspots at downslopes of the distribution.

    In addition, the high sociability, and cooperative nature, of human economic systems, entailed selection pressure for a quality still poorly defined: emotional intelligence. This is linked, not only to qualities for successful interaction with other people and qualities such as impulse control , but also to some of the “dark triad” traits that have been identified in the research on human psychology: narcissistic, manipulative (subclinical psychopath), and Machiavellian tendencies.

    Finally, there is the as yet unknown range of possible genetic entanglements involved in the kind of heightened sensitivity that we regularly see in a about a fifth of humanity – the creative ones, the geniuses, the ones that seem to represent the quicksilver of the human mind , but also the ones who tend to occasionally get irritable with too much noise or other stimulation, as well as the ones who slide into schizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

    Seen thus, the remarkable variety of normal human quirks all appear to be the outcome of a cognitive system finely honed (or perhaps a better term would be jury-rigged) to be a vehicle for replicating, hosting, tweaking, and curating the necessary variation so that every culture could be subject to natural selection in its own right, and could adapt and evolve in response to the necessities of its environment. Whether we prefer to see human culture as a modifier of natural selection working on our genome, or as an integrated assemblage of information evolving, much like the biological genome, and thus similarly subject to natural selection, is perhaps a matter of perspective.” – from the introduction to a paper prepared for the meeting of CHAGs, Vienna, 2015

  3. Helga Vierich

    Broad waves of ideas become popular and then fade into memory, even when the overall environment is stable. It creates a vast cumulative set of remembered variation carried forward through decades, centuries, and even millennia. These maybe the cultural equivalent of what used to be called “nonfunctional” DNA. Of late, I have sometimes found myself comparing human cultural systems to “quorum sensing” in bacteria and social insect species. Communication with time depth but also great geographic spread, among many hundreds of individuals gifted with a cognitive sensitivity to symbolic meaning, all playing with words, all indulging an opportunistic curiosity, can host fads and fashions, convey whole explanatory paradigms, and thus be responsible for the flares of innovation, genius, creativity, and exploration that is so typical of humans. And one can readily see how these cognitive mechanisms were driven by the needs of Culture – the 2nd replicator – it needs, after all, enough raw material for constant evolutionary change even in a stable environment.

    This hints at another set of cognitive mechanisms also clearly an outcome of natural biological selection. These serve, as it were, the needs of this 2nd replicator. These produce cognitive sensitivities and behavioral tendencies that not only preserve variability but also regularly introduce innovation. The role of “altruistic” giving and sharing behavior is central here, because cultural variation in this indicates that cultures use this to regulate not just individual economic effort (via dependency ratios and competition for reputation), but also reproductive success.

    Since, at least when using an economy of hunting and gathering, humans tend to have a much larger range and lower population density than we see, for example, in chimpanzees, even within the same environment, it follows that cultural systems with a larger network, for sharing information, would be more likely to persist than small ones. This enlargement of the network was very likely due to the steep natural section during the regular changes in rainfall and temperature occurring throughout the Pleistocene…

    Genetic polymorphisms that induced greater human cognitive and behavioral individuality would also be beneficial to cultural resilience. Mating systems that narrowed sexual selection criteria would be less successful than those which created and preserved variation. For adaptation via a second replicator consisting of inter-personal and inter-generational information transfer to work, you need whole collectives of local groups, each generating and exchanging innovations, each conserving the variations on a complex web of cultural themes. To have enough variation, both biological and cultural, to keep the cognitive phenotype and the cultural replicator responding to this selection pressure, a larger gene pool is needed. You need a minimum cast of thousands, just to keep most large mammalian species viable , and it seems logical to assume that as the selection pressure on cultural systems must be equally constraining if not more so.

    Culture, thus, is also a replicator with an agenda: each culture survives by virtue of its accumulated variation in information, so the deeper and wider that information is, the better. Such knowledge exchanges are a function of the social networks embedded in the society, something that is as true in forager economies as in any subsequent economies.
    (extracts from a paper presented at the CHAGS conference in Vienna 2015)

  4. Joe

    “Instead of thinking of culture as disembodied memes, we propose taking an organism-centered approach. Each human can possess or fail to possess a cultural variant, and the only way for this variant to be passed on is for another person to adopt the variant…”

    …so, you “propose” Boyd and Richerson’s 1985/2004 theory?

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