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?
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.