[Paleopsych] BBS: Francisco J. Gil-White: Common misunderstandings of memes (and genes)
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Francisco J. Gil-White: Common misunderstandings of memes (and genes)
The promise and the limits of the genetic analogy to cultural
fjgil at psych.upenn.edu ; http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~fjgil/
Assistant Professor of Psychology
University of Pennsylvania
3815 Walnut Street, Suite 400
Philadelphia PA 19104-6196
Word Count: Abstract = 248 words; Main text = 12,313; References =
1,154; Entire Text = 13,903.
Short Abstract: `Memetics' suffers from conceptual confusion and not
enough empirical work. This paper attempts to attenuate the former
problem by resolving the conceptual controversies. I criticize the
overly literal insistence--by both critics and advocates--on the
genetic analogy, which asks us to think about memes as bona-fide
replicators in the manner of genes, and to see all cultural
transmission processes as ultimately for the reproductive benefit of
memes, rather than their human vehicles. A Darwinian approach to
cultural transmission, I argue, requires neither. It is possible to
have Darwinian processes without genes, or even close analogues of
them. The cognitive mechanisms responsible for social-learning make
Long Abstract: `Memetics' suffers from conceptual confusion and not
enough empirical work. This paper attempts to attenuate the former
problem by resolving the conceptual controversies, which requires that
we not speculate about cultural transmission without being informed
about the cognitive mechanisms responsible for social learning. I
criticize the overly literal insistence--by both critics and
advocates--on the genetic analogy, which asks us to think about memes
as bona-fide replicators in the manner of genes, and to see all
cultural transmission processes as ultimately for the reproductive
benefit of memes, rather than their human vehicles. A Darwinian
approach to cultural transmission, I argue, requires neither. It is
possible to have Darwinian processes without genes, or even close
analogues of them. The insistence on a close genetic analogy is in
fact based on a poor understanding of genes and evolutionary genetics,
and of the kinds of simplifications that are legitimate in
evolutionary models. Some authors have insisted that the only
admissible definition for a `meme' is `selfish replicator.' However,
since the only agreement as to the definition of `meme' is that it is
what gets passed on through non-genetic means, only conceptual
confusion can result from trying to make a hypothesis into a
definition. This paper will argue that, although memes are not, in
fact, `selfish replicators,' they can and should be analyzed with
Darwinian models. It will argue further that the `selfish meme'
theoretical calque imported from genetics does much more to distort
than enlighten our understanding of cultural processes.
KEYWORDS: Cultural transmission, culture, evolutionary genetics, meme,
memetics, replicator, social-learning.
Given an incredibly simplistic notion of genes, memes are not in the
least like genes. . .One problem with interdisciplinary work is that
any one worker is likely to know much more about one area than any of
the others. Geneticists know much more about the complexities of
genetics than of social groups. Conversely, anthropologists and
sociologists tent to be well-versed in the details of social groups.
To them genetics looks pretty simple.--Hull (2000:46)
Many of the claims made about memes could be false because the analogy
to genes has not proven productive.--Aunger (2000:8)
Should we demand that `memes' be exactly like genes if we are to apply
Darwinian tools of analysis to culture? No.
The formal similarities between genes and what (after Dawkins
1989) are now called `memes'--the units of cultural transmission
and evolution--suggest cultural transmission processes are ripe for
Darwinian analysis. A vigorous debate is emerging over how to think
about `memes' (for a recent compendium of views see Aunger 2000). This
is an evolutionary but also cognitive issue because memes are stored
in human brains.
New fields will always use analogies and borrowed yardsticks, and
these can be a source of fresh insights, but also cause
misunderstanding. The yardstick which requires `memes' to be
essentially identical to genes if Darwinian analyses are to apply is a
source of much confusion. This regrettable error is advanced by both
critics and defenders of `memetics' and--to boot--the specific
arguments are often based on a poor understanding of genes and
evolutionary genetics. The standard chosen is therefore not only
erroneous but would indict evolutionary genetics as well (genes, it
turns out, are not sufficiently like `genes' either!).
There are too many insistent definitions of `meme'--typical in a new
research program given that careers (especially in social science) are
often boosted by getting particular definitions adopted. The prize is
large because the term `meme' is on everybody's lips. If definitions
were advanced only with conceptual progress in mind, this would be
fine. But here, more than in other fields, the various protagonists
must be aware that the contest is memetic, yielding a tendency to
produce `catchy' definitions that `sell well' at the expense of
conceptual advance and scientific utility.
The definition of meme as a `replicator' is very catchy. Introduced by
Dawkins (1989), and developed by Dennett (1995) and Blackmore
(1999, 2000), it has helped mobilize our intuitions for
population-driven processes involving genes, which are bona-fide
replicators producing perfect descendant copies of themselves. As a
heuristic device there is nothing wrong with this. But as a statement
of what Universal Darwinism is--i.e. find a replicator, then apply
Darwinism--it is a garden path. And a tortuous one. Consider that
Blackmore (2000:26) says "memes are replicators," but on the preceding
page claims that, "As long as we accept that people do, in fact,
imitate each other, and that information of some kind is passed on
when they do, then, by definition, memes exist." By definition? By
definition `replication' takes place when perfect copies are produced,
not when "information of some kind [my emphasis] is passed on..."
Proponents of memetics who uphold the `gene standard' must weaken and
mutilate the meaning of `replication'--which they take to result from
`imitation'--in order to claim that memes are `replicators' and that,
since they are, Darwinism applies. They insist, therefore, not on the
concept `replication' but on the word, the use of which is assumed
magically indispensable to the possibility of Darwinian science. But
this is absurd.
Critics of memetics who also uphold this same `gene standard,' on the
other hand, stick closely to the definition of `replication' as
`perfect copying,' and this is good (why butcher the language?).
However, they fetishize the concept, for they accuse that the poor
copying fidelity of memes--i.e. memes are not, after all,
replicators--supposedly makes Darwinian analyses to culture
inapplicable in principle. In my view, these critics, as much as the
proponents, are chasing a mirage. Replication is not necessary for
cumulative adaptations through selective processes (Boyd & Richerson
2000:153-158), and is therefore not the standard both critics and
proponents are looking for. Replication is a red herring.
The `selfish meme,' like its ancestor the `selfish gene,' is another
catchy idea. It answers the question cui bono? by saying that the unit
being transmitted--the meme--is the `entity' which `benefits' in the
cultural selective process. Again, this began with Dawkins (1983:109),
who stated that a meme is "a unit of cultural inheritance...naturally
selected by virtue of its...consequences on its own survival and
replication," and again developed by Dennett and Blackmore. In this
picture "We humans. . .have become just the physical `hosts' needed
for the memes to get around. This is how the world looks from a
`meme's eye view'" (Blackmore 1999:8). In a manner parallel to the
`gene's eye view,' we are here supposed to interpret every meme that
succeeds at proliferating as having done so by dint of being well
designed for proliferation. Cultural selection is reduced to the
continuous editing of meme content until memes end up optimally
designed for colonizing human brains. I will argue that only some
rather specialized kinds of memes satisfy this analytical calquing
from genetics to culture. But, again, this does nothing to wreck the
applicability of Darwinian analysis or the usefulness of thinking in
terms of memes--it merely indicts the fetishizing of the genetic
analogy. Reducing cultural transmission to `selfish memes' requires
that we ignore much of social-learning cognition and miss most of the
It should be obvious this far that I feel no compunction to accept
Dawkins' (1989), Dennett's (1995), and Blackmore's (1999) definition
of `meme' as selfish replicator. A recent compendium of views (Aunger
2000) makes it clear that neither do many others. It is best not to
insist on a research program that rises or falls on whether memes
defined as selfish replicators exist. That is a careerist semantic
game that tries to assume or impose as a definition something that
must be investigated, and such a game does not advance the science of
cultural transmission--a science that will be carried out anyways
because we must.
Most of us seem to accept the Oxford English Dictionary's definition,
which says: `an element of culture that may be considered to be passed
down by non-genetic means.' So `selfish replicator' I will treat
as a hypothesis about what the stuff that gets transmitted through
non-genetic means is like. The relevant questions, then, are: (1) does
this stuff look like a selfish replicator?; (2) If not, does this
really make Darwinian analyses of culture impossible? Related
questions are: (3) if they don't replicate, is it impossible to find
the boundaries of memes?; and (4) can we import from biology,
willy-nilly, the `selfish gene' idea? I will answer "no" to each of
these questions. But I will still call what is transmitted culturally
a `meme,' and so--I will bet my house--will everybody else. The term
`meme' has already been selected for, so rather than forcing its
meaning to coincide with a particular hypothesis about cultural
transmission, let us do some science.
I. What is required for genetic cumulative evolution?
Darwinian systems involve simple and blind algorithmic processes that
nevertheless produce gradual accumulation of (sometimes very complex)
adaptive design. They have three main requirements: information must
be able to leave descendant copies (inheritance), new information
should be routinely generated by some process (mutation), and there
should be forces responsible for causing some items of information to
leave more descendants than others (selection).
Genes satisfy all three. They are inherited through reproduction; new
genes are routinely created because of occasional copying mistakes, or
`mutations', during DNA duplication; and a gene, through its effect on
its carriers, affects the probability that it will increase in number.
Thanks to selection and inheritance, when a particular gene causes
increased reproductive success, more copies of it are passed on, and
its relative frequency in the population increases (absent frequency
dependent effects, eventually the whole population will have it).
Thanks to mutation, new alternative genes get generated which
occasionally amount to improvements, allowing the population to
continue to evolve.
Cumulative genetic adaptations are possible because (1) genetic
mutations typically introduce incremental rather than massive changes,
and (2) the mutation rate for genes is low. It is these latter two
requirements for cumulative evolution in genetic systems that inform
some scholars' intuitions that `replication'--that is, high-fidelity
copying--is crucial to cumulative evolution through memes as well,
which intuitions then damn Darwinian approaches to culture if memes
are found not to replicate. For this reason these two requirements
deserve further attention here.
Massive change is by definition the opposite of the accumulation of
design, where each successive design change is a minor alteration on
the margins of the previous template. But should we expect organic
evolution to consist of small, incremental changes? Yes. The space of
maladaptive designs is vast relative to the space of adaptive ones, so
random changes to any current design (and mutations are random) are
unlikely to cause adaptive improvements. Imagine that a monkey types a
character at random as I am writing this essay. Will it improve?
Without vanity, I can say that the chances are exceedingly low. A
random typo is unlikely to yield English, let alone better English.
But should the monkey press a key which launched a program to
rearrange all of the letters in my essay, then he would be infinitely
less likely to improve it--slim as his chances were anyway. In
population-driven processes, for a novelty to last longer than an
instant, it is typically constrained to cause a small modification.
Mutations must also be infrequent because, unless designs are
relatively stable across time, we cannot get cumulative evolution.
Suppose the offspring of A's are mostly non-A's. Even if A reproduces
better than its competitors B and C, this cannot have an evolutionary
consequence because the information responsible for A's reproductive
prowess is almost always lost after reproduction. On the contrary, if
an A typically begets another A, then A's higher reproductive success
will soon make everybody in the population an A (absent
frequency-dependent effects). Later, when a rare mutation results in a
slight improvement to `A design'--let us call the new design A°--these
A° mutants will outreproduce mere A's and the population changes again
(but only slightly).
This covers the intuitive basics of genes as replicators allowing for
cumulative cultural evolution. But how similar to genes are memes?
Well, memes certainly have the properties of inheritance, mutation,
and selection. We constantly acquire and learn things from each other
through social interaction, so in a broad sense at least it makes
sense to say that the information I possess can create a `descendant
copy' in you (inheritance). People can make mistakes when acquiring
information, and can also have stupid or bright novel ideas, which
leads to new items of information (mutation). And some ideas are more
popular than others, so they are copied more, stored longer, and
rebroadcast more often, which in turn means they leave more
descendants than competing ideas (selection). What makes some ideas
more `popular' than others are the properties of human social-learning
psychology. This is not the only force acting to favor certain memes
over others, but it is a very important one and I shall restrict
myself to it here.
So much for intuitively stated formal similarities. The devil, as
usual, lurks in the details. To many critics, the dangerous phrase
above is "in a broad sense...information can create a `descendant
copy.'" How broad? How similar must ancestor and descendant memes be?
Some assert that selectionist approaches cannot work because memes are
not true replicators, making cumulative evolution impossible (e.g.
Sperber 1996; Boyer 1994). Others, however, have not considered this a
problem and proceeded to build Darwinian selectionist models that in
their fundamental assumptions are quite similar to those used in
evolutionary genetics, but adapted for cultural idiosyncrasies (e.g.
Boyd & Richerson 1985; Lumsden & Wilson 1981; Cavalli Sforza & Feldman
1981; for a review, see Feldman & Laland 1996). As Laland & Odling
Smee (2000:121) put it: "For us, the pertinent question is not whether
memes exist. . .but whether they are a useful theoretical expedient."
Their critics, however, will counter that such models do not help us
explain human cultural processes because the units employed are
nothing like what exists in real-life cultural transmission. To find
out who is right, we need first to examine closely whether it matters
that memes are poor replicators.
II. Do memes mutate too much?
To Dan Sperber (1996), contagious pathogens such as viruses are a
better analogy than genes for understanding the spread of cultural
information. Populations of brains are infested in successive
`epidemics' of memes (which Sperber invariably calls
`representations'--a favorite term in the cognitive literature). He
cautions, however, that the analogy can be taken only so far.
. . .whereas pathogenic agents such as viruses and bacteria reproduce
in the process of transmission and undergo a mutation only
occasionally, representations are transformed almost every time they
are transmitted. . .--Sperber (1996:25)
. . .recall is not storage in reverse, and comprehension is not
expression in reverse. Memory and communication transform
For example, does anybody ever retell a story exactly? No, and this is
In the case of genes, a typical rate of mutation might be one mutation
per million replications. With such low rates of mutation, even a very
small selection bias is enough to have, with time, major cumulative
effects. If, on the other hand, in the case of culture there may be,
as Dawkins  acknowledges, `a certain "mutational" element in
every copying event,' then the very possibility of cumulative effects
of selection is open to question.--Sperber (1996:102-103)
It is important to see exactly what the argument is. Genes are very
stable across generations because they very rarely make copying errors
during duplication--hence, for the most part, they replicate. As
observed above, this allows cumulative genetic adaptations to emerge
because small, cumulative changes can only be added if there is an
overall template which remains--for the most part--stable. There is
nothing absolute about the acceptable rate of mutation, of course.
Rather, this is always relative to the strength of selection. For
example, even if there is a moderate rate of mutation, cumulative
evolution will still happen if the selective process culls suboptimal
variants fast enough that the favored design is stable at the
populational level, and from generation to generation. G.C. Williams
(1966) made this principle famous in his definition of an
`evolutionary gene,' which is "any hereditary information for which
there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or
many times its rate of endogenous change." This definition was taken
willy-nilly by Dawkins and applied to his definition of the `meme,'
and recently stated very clearly by Wilkins (1998:8):
A meme is the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a
selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias
that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change.
Sperber is accepting this move to assume (1) that `replicators' are
the things to look for; (2) that Dawkins' reinterpretation of Williams
gives the universal definition of a replicator, and (3) that Darwinian
analyses will apply to memes only if they can satisfy this definition.
In fact, Sperber eagerly forces the issue by ruling that any other
conceptualization of `the meme' is trivial (Sperber 2000:163). His
stance is therefore that cumulative adaptations through cultural
selection are possible only if we can find bona-fide cultural
replicators. But memes in fact mutate in every single act of
transmission, so he concludes that cultural selection cannot
conceivably act fast enough because the meme's dizzying rate of
endogenous change creates a ceiling effect (Atran 2001 echoes this
argument). Sperber therefore believes that we must understand how
cognitive processes of information storage and retrieval cause
mutations in particular and systematic directions. With this
information, we can build (orthomemetic?) models of directed mutation
rather than selectionist models (Sperber 1996:52-53, 82-83; 110-112)
of cumulative change.
There is some irony in this. Hull (2000:47) quotes the above
definition by Wilkins approvingly as a starting point for a science of
memetics that he optimistically believes to be possible, although he
fully expects "howls of derision" to come from unreasonable critics
who will accuse this definition of not being sufficiently
"operational." Something very different has already happened, however!
A prominent critic of selectionist approaches to culture--Sperber--has
eagerly embraced that very definition in order to explain why
selectionist approaches to culture are supposedly impossible.
It would seem as though either Hull or Sperber must be wrong, for they
agree on how to define units of cultural processes that would be
legitimately Darwinian, but they reach exactly opposite conclusions as
to whether human culture passes or fails the test. However, I believe
they are both mistaken because they are sparring on the wrong
battlefield. The standard chosen, rather than enlighten, blinds us to
the general requirements for a Darwinian system by insisting narrowly
on the terms of one particular solution to them--the genetic one--as
if this were the only possibility.
I shall accept Sperber's point that the mutation rate for memes is 1:
they mutate in every act of transmission. And I will agree, too, that
often they are systematically biased. But this is neither here nor
there. What matters is how big these mutations are, and how strongly
biased in particular directions, as we shall see.
III. `Replication' is a red herring
Sperber's argument may seem intuitively appealing, but I think it is
specious. Near-perfect copying fidelity is certainly important in
genetic selection, but it is not a requirement for any Darwinian
system. If the high rate of mutation is not the meme's only
distinction, then perhaps its other idiosyncrasies make it possible
for regularly imperfect--or even invariably imperfect--meme-copying to
support the emergence of cumulative adaptations.
I shall make the case with a toy example. But first, a few
preliminaries. In genetics, a `locus' is the physical location of a
`gene' on a chromosome. This is where the information `for something'
can be found. If we are talking about, say, the `eye-color' locus,
then the gene found there may be the `brown-eye' gene, or the
`blue-eye' gene, and so forth. What is the analogue in memetic
transmission? For example, imagine something like, say, a tennis-serve
`locus'. Whatever is in your tennis-serve locus causes your behavior
when beginning a new point in tennis. There are in principle a vast
number of different behaviors that people could store at the tennis
serve locus (just as there are many different sequences of nucleotides
that may be stored at the chromosomal eye-color locus). Waving hello
to your mom, or baking a bread, would be ruled illegal by the judges,
but in principle this does not prevent you from storing such
information at that locus (just as a random and useless sequence of
nucleotides could, in principle, be stored at the eye-color locus).
It hardly matters that the tennis-serve locus may not be physically
located in the same piece of brain for every individual. To insist on
this is to push the genetic analogy to an absurd extreme where it
begins to straight-jackets thought rather than inspire insights. The
relevant and crucial similarity is functional, not physical: if
individuals recognize that an item of information becomes relevant
when, in a game of tennis, a new point is beginning, then the
`cultural locus' has all the requisite functional similarity to the
genetic locus that we need. In cognitive terms, the cultural `locus'
is a tag plus retrieval function--it is a matter of categorization
rather than physical location in the brain. The information retrieved
at the start of a new tennis point is that which I tag as `tennis
serve'. Waving to my mom or baking a cake have not been tagged this
way (even though, in principle they could be), and, since they have
not been, they do not compete to `occupy' my tennis serve `locus.' The
true alleles of my current serve, therefore, are other behaviors which
I also tag as `tennis serves' because some individuals in the
population perform them in the context of beginning a point in a
tennis match. I may choose to acquire one of these later on, and in so
doing will replace my current serve.
These obvious functional similarities readily dismiss the criticism
that, because memes do not have the same kind of physical reality as
genes, selectionist approaches to culture are a nonstarter. We are not
talking here of the duplication of exact neuronal structures analogous
to the duplication of exact nucleotide sequences in DNA, but we are
speaking of the duplication of a certain behavior, understood to
belong in a certain context, and in competition with other behaviors
also understood to be candidates for the same context. The lack of
similarity in the material basis of genes and memes is not a problem.
A. The right mix of stability and variation
To see whether a meme's inability to properly replicate makes
cumulative cultural adaptations are impossible, we must examine the
full spectrum of theoretical possibilities.
Suppose that in our population, Bob's serve is the most attractive,
and seeing it performed gets people excited to make changes in their
own tennis-serve loci. There is a continuum of different things that
could happen, bounded by two extremes. At one
extreme--replication--people acquire precisely the same content that
is in Bob's own locus. For example, you acquire the exact same
top-spin service with a slight jump that Bob favors. At the other
extreme--causation of random changes--people rewrite the information
in their locus such that it typically bears no resemblance to Bob's
serve. Here, for example, you might `write' into your tennis serve
locus the idea that you should wave at mom when up to serve.
Please take note that I am not following the information in the brain
here, although of course it is necessary for the process. What I am
keeping track of here is the actual behaviors, and I am completely
ignoring the question of what particular information content in the
brain may be causing them. The latter is not always unimportant
(Gil-White 2002a), but it does not concern me in the present analysis,
and it is irrelevant to the points I will make. When I talk about
`replication failure,' what I mean here is the inability of the copier
to perform a serve that is identical to Bob's.
Let us look first at the causation of random changes. This will look
silly, but we cannot gain the proper insights until we examine the
full spectrum of possibilities. As silly as it sounds, suppose I put
`wave at mom' in my tennis serve locus after watching Bob's top-spin
serve. You will put randomly different, but typically equally
dissimilar, information to Bob's serve in your own tennis serve locus.
What will happen? We are assuming that it is the content (i.e. the
sequence of motions) involved in Bob's serve that make it attractive,
in turn precipitating changes in the tennis-serve loci of other
people. Given this, I myself (who now wave at mom when I `serve')--and
all others who randomly changed the information at their tennis serve
loci after watching Bob--are not similarly beacons of change; our new
`tennis serves' look nothing like Bob's and they therefore get nobody
excited (and mostly irritate the judge because they are not
admissible). Bob's serve has not become more common, nor has the mean
serve of the population moved in the direction of Bob's serve. Since
evolution is about statistical changes in a population, the fact that
this process does not produce reliable directional movement in the
population's mean serve implies that this process cannot lead to
cumulative design changes. After all, the first requirement for
cumulative adaptive design is the possibility of directional change.
Now consider the other extreme. This will look silly too. Here,
watching Bob's serve produces verbatim replicas in observers'
tennis-serve loci. People copy perfectly, so there is never any
mutation--not ever. What happens? Because Bob's is the most attractive
serve, all of the people who now have Bob's serve in turn become
models for other people, who again copy the serve precisely and so
forth. Bob's serve spreads until everybody is serving identically.
Here, too, selection cannot lead to cumulative design changes because
the serves are all identical to Bob's. The future will be spent
forever more serving exactly like Bob, by everybody. No other serves
will ever emerge because nobody ever makes a copying mistake.
We see that at either end--random changes, or perfect replication
(100% copying fidelity)--there can be no accumulation of adaptive
design. So this can occur only somewhere `in the middle', where
descendant changes are relatively similar to the `parent' stimulus,
but somewhat different. There are two ways in which this can happen:
(1) descendant serves are always identical to the parent, except that
every once in a long while there will be an accidental difference; or
(2) the descendant serves are always accidentally different from the
parent serve, but jump around relatively closely to the average of
copying accuracy. In both cases we get more attractive future serves
by making marginal changes to Bob's, which in turn makes the
marginally improved serve the new model (and this is what allows for
cumulative adaptation). I examine each in turn.
(1) Copying involves mistakes only once in a long while. Here the
information `written' in a person's tennis-serve locus is a pristine
replica of the `parent' serve. There is a very small probability of
replication failure so, very rarely, a random modification results.
Such modifications will typically make Bob's serve less effective
because a tennis serve is a complex behavior where many variables must
be kept within narrow ranges to ensure success. I am assuming that
only effective serves are attractive, and so most random changes will
result in less attractive serves. But very, very occasionally, a
random copying mistake begets a more effective--and therefore more
attractive--serve, which then displaces Bob's as people now begin
making perfect replicas of the improved serve. Many iterations of this
cycle will lead to ever better serves. I have just described a process
of accumulation of adaptive design emerging from cultural transmission
that is exactly parallel to cumulative genetic evolution by natural
selection. Sperber (1996) claims that in order for selection to
produce cumulative design in cultural transmission, the process should
look like this. But let us take a look at a rather different process.
(2) Copying always involves mistakes, but around an average of perfect
accuracy. This process is illustrated below in fig. 1. Every time
somebody sees Bob's top-spin serve, the goal is to copy it exactly,
but there is always some error, and thus there is almost never a
perfect copy. However, the errors are relatively small and not biased
in any particular direction, so that Bob's serve is obviously the
template for all descendant serves. In this scenario, replication is
the occasional exception. However, the population's mean serve is
still Bob's, even if no individual serve is a true replica. The errors
amount to a constant introduction of modest variations, from which a
serve superior to Bob's will emerge, and which then will become the
new model serve--the new template to copy--for all of us. When that
happens, this new serve becomes the new mean of the population, with a
new cloud of error around it.
If we concentrate on the population mean, it is clear that cumulative
design is taking place. This is not like genetic evolution by natural
selection (where replication is very high fidelity), but it is
certainly the accumulation of adaptive design due to selection (and it
is faster than natural selection because variants are introduced in
every copying attempt).
Fig. 1. Copying with modest errors. Think of the units in the X-axis
as being very small, so that the distance between the left-most bar
and the right-most bar is not too great--that is, we are assuming that
all serves produced are minor deviations from the target serve (which
In the second case just considered replication rarely if ever happens;
the norm is replication failure. It is a good summary description of
the assumptions that go into many of the selectionist models that Boyd
& Richerson (1985) introduced in their approach. This condition of
replication failure as the norm is what Sperber claims renders
cumulative adaptations from cultural transmission impossible. But we
have just seen that it is certainly conceivable, and this lays bare
that replication itself is a red herring. It is neither here nor
there. What cumulative adaptation requires is (1) sufficient
inaccuracy in the production of descendants such that superior
variants can occasionally emerge; and (2) sufficient accuracy that, at
the populational level (the mean), we can speak of meaningful,
directional change (cf. Boyd & Richerson 2000).
B. Mutations may have consistent biases
But what about directed mutation? This idea posits an attractor,
created by a psychological bias, towards which serves will tend
because the copying mistakes we make are on average in the direction
of the attractor. That is, the mean of our copying errors will not be
zero. Contra Sperber, this is still not a problem--at least not in
The attractor could be anywhere at all, but we can get our bearings by
again considering the two extremes, namely, (1) when the attractor is
the optimally effective serve, and (2) when it is in a direction
opposite to the optimally effective serve.
(1) The mutation attractor is the optimally effective serve. This case
is illustrated below in figure 2. As before, suppose that every person
tries to copy Bob's serve exactly, but fails within a cloud of error
with mean zero. A few people, however, can see forward to the kinds of
modifications that would make Bob's serve even better, and attempt
these. This means that the actual mean `error' for the whole
population will be skewed by these innovators in the direction of the
optimal serve. Does this prevent cumulative adaptive design? No. On
the contrary, it speeds up the process that takes the population to
the optimal serve because mutations in this direction are slightly
more likely. The design is cumulative because foresight does not
extend to the optimal serve itself, merely to slight modifications of
observable serves that take them in that direction.
Fig. 2. Adaptive mutation bias. In this case the population mean is
closer to the optimum, after copying, than is Bob's.
(2) The mutation attractor is in a direction opposite to the optimal
serve. This case is illustrated below in figure 3. This could mean,
for example, that there is something about the way it feels natural to
move our bodies that makes us more likely to make errors in a
direction away from the optimally most effective serve. But the phrase
here is more likely. It doesn't mean that copying errors in the
direction of a better serve never happen. Thus, what happens is that
the mean copying effort results in a serve somewhat lower in quality
than Bob's, but if the cloud of copying error occasionally produces a
serve better than his, this serve will become the new target for
copiers. This results in a new population mean that is again less good
than the new target serve, but it is not less good than the previous
mean serve in the population. Thus, the population mean will have
moved closer to the optimal serve despite the fact that the mutation
bias always makes it lag behind its current target.
Fig. 3. Maladaptive mutation bias. In this case the population mean is
further away from the optimum, after copying, than is Bob's serve.
However, some copiers will make mistakes to the right of Bob, and
since this yields a better serve, it will become the model for the
Only when the attractor is so far away that it prevents the emergence
of any variants better than Bob's serve would the emergence of
cumulative design be short-circuited, as shown below in figure 4.
that result in improvements
Fig. 4. Overly strong maladaptive bias. Due to a strong mutation
attractor, the population mean is so far away from Bob's serve in a
maladaptive direction that better serves practically will never
The last example above shows that, when directed mutation occurs, it
should be modeled together with selection. The direction of the system
will then result from the algebraic sum of all the forces considered.
We don't have to decide whether either mutation or selection is the
force to consider in our modeling exercises. For problems having the
structure just considered, Sperber will be right that constant,
directed mutation, prevents cumulative adaptation only if and when
such mutation is (1) not towards the optimum and, (2) of sufficient
strength. This is an empirical question, and it may be true for some
domains and not for others. But we will not find the answer under the
But do we have empirical examples of cumulative cultural adaptations
through selection? Yes. Other than tennis serves, we could name tennis
racquets. In fact, we could name anything in the large domain called
`technology'. Here design has obviously accumulated gradually. And
even here Sperber's dictum that replication is a limiting case rather
than the norm is correct (except in the case of our very modern
One can also point to institutions. Certainly institutions have been
`constituting' themselves on paper for a long time, but institutional
organization pre-dates paper. Moreover, though the rules of an
institution may be written, institutional behavior is always in the
(sometimes very) flexible neighborhood of what is written down, rather
than a rigid instantiation of it. In this sense--as living, breathing
organisms--institutions are always imperfectly copied (for an example,
consider that the Mexican political constitution is--on paper--almost
a replica of the American, on which it was modeled). And yet
institutions accrete cumulative changes. The evidence that they do so
adaptively is in the incontrovertible fact that complex societies have
outcompeted simple ones, and in the fact that different institutional
arrangements have been the key to success in the competition between
different complex societies (McNeil 1963, Landes 1998, Diamond 1997,
Wright 2000). Technological and institutional change are not the only
examples, merely the most obvious ones. But they occupy much of what
is important in cultural evolution, so they make the case that
selectionist approaches will be quite significant to explaining
Given that cumulative cultural adaptations don't require memes to
replicate, this was not the litmus test for Darwinian analyses to
culture. And if my critique of gene-analogy fetishism among the
critics of `memetics' is acceptable (for a mathematical demonstration
of my core arguments, see Henrich and Boyd 2002), it simultaneously
refutes the arguments of proponents such as Dawkins, Dennett, and
Blackmore, who fetishize the alleged importance of `replication' for
IV. `Imitation' is another red herring
A related point can be made about `imitation' (i.e. what we do when we
copy Bob's serve). Blackmore insists on imitation as the memetic
process. But she would like to consider a narrative, for example, a
`meme.' And yet, narratives are not transmitted by imitation.
Blackmore (1999:6) gets around this by corrupting the meaning of
`imitation' just as she did with `replication':
Dawkins said that memes jump from 'brain to brain via a process which,
in the broad sense, can be called imitation' (1976:192). I will also
use the term 'imitation' in the broad sense. So if, for example, a
friend tells you a story and you remember the gist and pass it on to
someone else then that counts as imitation.
With such a loose definition of `imitation,' a reader such as myself
cannot understand what standard Blackmore upholds when she insists
that `imitation' is what identifies the subject matter of `memetics'
(cf. Plotkin 2000:76-77).
But this is another red herring anyway. We need a handle on the
social-learning cognitive mechanisms which, in combination with
individual-learning processes, are responsible for affecting the
distribution of memes (cf. Plotkin 2000; Laland & Odling Smee 2000).
Imitation is important, but we don't need to fixate on it. Different
domains will involve different processes and will need mid-level
theories particular to them, but "In every case the Darwinian
population approach will illuminate the process..." (Boyd & Richerson
The imitation of a motor act, the acquisition of a native language,
and learning one's culture-specific social constructions have
different developmental trajectories. . .Each is based on different
psychological mechanisms. It is almost certainly the case that the
characteristics each displays in terms of fecundity, longevity, and
fidelity of copying are also different in each case, and different
precisely because each is based on different mechanisms. The
suggestion that "we stick to defining the [sic] meme as that which is
passed on by imitation" Blackmore (1998), if taken literally, is an
impoverishment of memetics for reasons of wanting to maintain copying
The insistence on imitation, as Plotkin suggests, comes precisely from
this obsession with replication (copying fidelity). Imitation,
narrowly (i.e. properly) understood, is the mechanism that strikes
some observers, Blackmore included, as closest to the production of
carbon copies. So they insist on the word `imitation' because it
confers the cachet of `replication,' which in turn supposedly grants
in exclusivity the legitimacy to undertake Darwinian analyses. Absurd.
And here again, the critics of `memes' agree with this fetishism of
`imitation' only so they can reach the opposite conclusion. Atran
(2001) in a section title, says, "No Replication without Imitation;
Therefore, No Replication" (because there is no real imitation), and
thus--absent replication--no applicability of Darwinian selectionist
analyses to culture. This is hardly better, and refuting Blackmore's
error is simultaneously to refute this one. If imitation and
replication are neither here nor there when it comes to establishing a
litmus test for the possibility of a Darwinism of culture, then one
cannot reduce one's advocacy or skepticism of this project to whether
there is or isn't imitation and/or replication.
It is true that some cultural transmission scholars have made much of
`imitation' (e.g. Boyd & Richerson 1985, 1996, 2000; Tomassello et al.
1993), and they have stressed its indispensability to cumulative
cultural evolution. Less misunderstanding would result if they said
imitation was the ability which initially set humans along the path of
cumulative cultural change, and that other tricks have since become
possible (it is not a coincidence that when the above authors stress
imitation they are comparing humans to nonhumans). For example, I have
recently argued that language became possible when imitation led to
the emergence of prestige hierarchies (Gil-White 2002). But this
emergence of language now makes prestige-biased transmission often a
process of influence that pushes attitudes back and forth along a
continuum, rather than imitation (Henrich & Gil-White 2001). Another
example: narratives can accrue cumulative changes through selection,
and I doubt that Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, or Michael Tomassello
will disagree. But narratives don't spread through imitation, even if
the evolution of imitation was necessary for the emergence of
language, which is indispensable for narrative. We must distinguish
the phylogenetic indispensability of imitation from its current
importance in cultural transmission.
V. Platonic inferences
So far I have ignored the following problem: although individuals do
not make replicas of the memes they try to copy, they do try to.
However, what could their target be? After all, our tennis player,
Bob, never replicates his own serve perfectly either! Bob's
performance is itself a cloud of error around a mean. So copiers must
be abstracting an `ideal Bob serve'--which they try to emulate--from
Bob's performances. Sperber (1996:62-63) dismisses this as `a
Platonist approach' (indeed Plato would have liked the argument that
we strive to copy not the thing we see, but its `essence', as we infer
it, so to speak). To Sperber, formal properties cannot be causal.
I believe the opposite. It makes perfect sense that we infer and
abstract an `ideal' serve as Bob's goal, and then strive for it. For
evolution to have designed our social-learning psychology otherwise
would not have been adaptive, given that the performances of the
people we copy are statistical clouds (cf. Dennett 1995:358; Dawkins
1999:x-xii; Blackmore 1999:51-52; Boyd & Richerson 2000). In a
selectionist model it is therefore perfectly valid to define `the
meme' as the abstraction for which Bob strives, and to track the
population mean as people try to copy this abstraction. I do not agree
with criticisms that selectionist models have illegitimately relied on
assumptions of discrete memes (Atran 2001), or that "the notion of
replication certainly is one idealization too many for models of
cultural transmission" Boyer (1998). The problem being modeled will
determine whether the simplification is legitimate, and many such
models actually include copying error as a parameter anyway.
However, there is no question that there is an important role here for
cognitive psychology and anthropology. We need a better understanding
of how the brain decides which aspects of a performance are important
and which irrelevant. Understanding such cognitive filters will tell
us, for a particular domain, what is the `meme'. But not having yet a
good handle on such things is no obstacle (pace Atran 2002:ch.10) to
current selectionist models (review in Feldman & Laland 1996) for
these are concerned with the formal, emergent properties of Darwinian
systems that, by assumption, are capable of cumulative adaptation,
rather than with the histories of any specific, individual memes. As
such, they teach us how to think about cultural evolutionary processes
involving broadly specified types of (relatively abstract) memes, and
the long run properties of dynamic systems having two interlocking
systems of inheritance: genetic and cultural. What I have tried to do
here is show that the assumption of selectionist models--that
cumulative adaptation is rampant in cultural transmission--is a very
VI. What are the boundaries of `a meme'?
Some critics (e.g. Atran 2001) accuse that memes don't have
well-defined boundaries, but even "well-disposed" anthropologists
can't see where to draw them. Maurice Bloch (2000) expresses his
misgivings as follows:
As I look at the work of meme enthusiasts, I find a ragbag of
proposals for candidate memes, or what one would otherwise call units
of human knowledge. At first, some seem convincing as discrete units:
catchy tunes, folk tales, the taboo on shaving among Sikhs,
Pythagoras's theorem, etc. However, on closer observation, even these
more obvious 'units' lose their boundaries. Is it the whole tune or
only a part of it which is the meme? The Sikh taboo is meaningless
unless it is seen as part of Sikh religion and identity. Pythagoras'
theorem is a part of geometry and could be divided into smaller units
such as the concept of a triangle, angle, equivalence, etc.
Bloch has rather quickly pronounced defeat. These problems are hardly
insurmountable, and they are not any different from similar conceptual
problems faced in evolutionary genetics.
What is `the meme': the whole tune or only part of it? A Darwinian
unit is of whatever size selection favors. This is why in evolutionary
genetics Dawkins (1983:87-89) doesn't like to insist on the gene as a
cistron (`start' codon to `stop' codon). He is right. The cistron is
more useful to molecular biologists. A tune, just like a cistron, has
a starting point and an ending point, and, just like a cistron, this
is a matter of performance, not selection. For the tune, a musical
performance; for the cistron, the construction of a polypeptide chain.
Our intuition that the whole tune is a unit does not come from an
analysis of what people can remember and what they rebroadcast, about
what spreads and doesn't spread, but rather from our understanding of
the conventions of musical performances. That the whole tune is a unit
of performance does not make it a unit of selection.
The key point is that there are memes about which things to perform,
and how much of them to perform, and these are of a different kind,
and are found at different cultural `loci,' than the loci which store
tune fragments. At one cultural `locus' we find beliefs about which
piece should be played compete. This locus can house a finite number
of such beliefs; `Beethoven's 5^th deserves to be played' has
consistently triumphed in securing a spot in it. Another locus is
where memes compete to specify how much of a piece should be played.
Here the belief `play a piece from beginning to end' has fared well
against competitors. Thus, it is because these two memes are
successful in their respective loci that Beethoven's 5^th is played
often and in its entirety--not because the symphony itself is encoded
whole in the heads of listeners! What listeners remember of the piece
is stored in yet another locus where tune-fragments compete to be
remembered. For the most part, only the opening theme survives (it is
That these loci are independent (though not unrelated, of course) is
made evident by the fact that very catchy but tiresome pop-tune
fragments will get remembered so easily that the preference for the
entire song not to be played will spread (at least after the initial
success of the song in question). It is thus possible for the
tune-fragment, on the one hand, and the negative preference for the
song which contains it, on the other, to be simultaneously at high
frequency, and remain so for a while. Try and see if you can forget
`The Macarena' (and tell me honestly whether you would like to hear it
played). Of course, for such a tune-fragment to persist across the
generations, a reasonable fraction of people must preserve the belief
that the piece which contains it ought to be played. The opening theme
to Beethoven's 5^th will probably continue to make it, but my future
children will never know `The Macarena'.
What we have discovered here is that for a meme to spread--here, the
opening theme to Beethoven's 5^th--it needs a favorable ecology of
other memes at other loci (for example, `Beethoven's 5^th deserves to
be played'; the memes necessary to play a violin; the meme that
violinists should be paid; etc., etc.). This discovery looks a lot
like an earlier discovery: that any gene cannot hope to prosper unless
it is surrounded by a favorable ecology of genes at other loci in its
own organism, and also in the ecology of phenotypic effects of other
organisms' genes. What else is new? If this discovery does not hurt
the possibility of population analyses in biology, why should it be
fatal for culture?
Yes, the Sikh taboo is more likely to spread and remain stable in an
ecology of religious memes that are congruent with it. Yes,
Pythagoras' theorem cannot be learned without first possessing the
meme that says what a triangle is. But neither can the gene for
reciprocity spread, for example, unless there are genes already for,
say, social aggregation. None of this is new, or especially difficult.
Another vexing problem raised by the question "what are the boundaries
of `a meme'?" refers to the level of abstraction. When somebody tells
me a story, and I retell it, I will never give a verbatim rendition of
the story I heard. Many of the details will change. There are good
reasons to think that most of the details are not even stored in
memory (Schank & Abelson 1995). I can feel the critic pouncing: "Aha!
There is no stability!" But at what level? Suppose that the skeleton
of the story is very stable. If so, the fact that story details are
not even encoded in the listener's brain--and therefore change
radically from version to version--is as worrisome to Darwinian
analyses in culture as silent mutations in the DNA code are to
evolutionary genetics (i.e. not at all). What we need to keep track of
is the story skeleton. Changes there will be the real mutations. I
shall ignore further development of this point here as I will soon
give it an article-length treatment (Gil-White, in prep.).
VII. Meme `content' is not everything
Recently, Sperber (2000) makes a concession to the point that we make
Platonic inferences but then insists that these are almost always
triggered rather than bootstrapped. Atran (2002, 2001, 1998), and
Boyer (1998, 1994) make essentially the same point.
The argument is that observation produces `inferences' which are best
described as the triggering of a pre-existing knowledge structure.
Sperber (2000:165-66) gives the example of language, interpreted from
a Chomskian point of view, "where language learners converge on
similar meanings on the basis of weak evidence provided by words used
in an endless diversity of contexts and with various degrees of
literalness or figurativeness." From this it follows, he says, that
language learning is much more about triggering pre-existing knowledge
than bootstrapping new knowledge. Rather than stable and discrete
memes competing with each other in a selective contest, goes the
argument, memes will mutate quickly and fuzzily, and morph inexorably
into the shape favored by a content-bias `attractor,' which is
specified by our innate cognitive endowment.
Not everything is like that, Sperber admits. "Learning to tap dance
involves more copying than learning to walk," but, he insists, "For
memetics to be a reasonable research programme, it should be the case
that copying [as opposed to the triggering of pre-existing knowledge],
and differential success in causing the multiplication of copies,
overwhelmingly plays the major role in shaping all or at least most of
the contents of culture." But it doesn't, he claims. Rather (as if
this were an alternative!) he claims that "the acquisition of cultural
knowledge and know-how is made possible and partly shaped by evolved
In my view Sperber sets up a straw man--a false test--for several
reasons. First, because, as noted above, he is asking us to choose
between complements rather than between alternatives.
Second, because, for a great many domains the triggering of inferences
makes a rather different point. Our toy example will assist us here
too. As observed earlier, learning Bob's serve requires that we
abstract his goal from his statistical cloud of performances. This is
an inference, sure, and it relies on "pre-existing knowledge" too. But
knowledge about what? Primarily, about the purpose of a serve in a
game of tennis. In other words, knowledge that does not come from an
innate, domain-specific module as Sperber would have it, for the brain
of a human hardly comes prepared to trigger "tennis" (and many people
around the world don't play it). An important form of cumulative
bootstrapping takes place already merely in the fact that the rules of
tennis need to be understood first in order properly to infer the
specific thing that Bob is going for when he serves. There is no
straightforward or absolute reduction to the triggering of innate
Third, because Sperber's linguistic example is not even that good.
Although there is undoubtedly much innate knowledge dedicated to the
bootstrapping of language, a model that reduces linguistic historical
processes to nothing more than triggering of innate knowledge can
never explain how Indo-European became Hindi but also Spanish.
Fourth, because Sperber's test is unfairly asymmetric. In his
formulation, the mechanism he does not favor--the copying of
knowledge--must be "overwhelmingly" dominant, but his favored
explanation need only be "partly" responsible for his prescriptions to
be the most sound. Tails, he wins; heads, we lose! We hardly need
Finally, even should we grant all of Sperber's assumptions and accept
that all attractors will be innate, and that there will be attractors
for everything, he is still wrong. Henrich & Boyd (2002) show that so
long as more than one attractor can exert influence over a given meme,
and the attractors are strong relative to selection pressures, the
dynamics quickly become a contest between the discrete alternatives
favored by each attractor, engaged in a selective contest. So even
here the fuzzily-morphing-into-the-attractor model is not
right--selection still happens.
A. Non-content biases and their importance
The last line of defense for Sperber would then be that, even so, the
contest is all between innate attractors and so one cannot expect
cumulative cultural evolution acting on arbitrarily varying memes.
Atran (1998) and Boyer (1998) agree with this view that transmission
is mostly about moderate variations around `core memes,' which are
strongly constrained by innate mental biases that focus on a meme's
content. A related view has stressed that the main causes of
`triggered inferences' will be local non-cultural environments (e.g.
Tooby & Cosmides 1992), so cultural differences reduce to the
environmental conditions surrounding the various local human
populations. Others, however, argue--not in stead (content biases are
important too) but in addition--for the importance of non-content
biases that allow arbitrary differences to spread and remain stable
(Boyd & Richerson 1985; Henrich & Boyd 1998; Henrich & Gil-White 2001;
Gil-White 2001a, 2001b).
To see why we believe in the rampant spread of arbitrary differences,
we must describe the relevant social-learning cognitive biases. Assume
that Bob is your hero because he is a great tennis player. Bob likes a
Wilson racquet. What do you do? Buy a Wilson racquet. Bob wears
leather pants; you buy leather pants. Or suppose everybody in your
high school class is getting leather pants. What do you do? Get
leather pants (you don't want to look like a deviant). In these
examples you acquire the meme not because the meme itself captivates
you; what seduces you are the contingently associated features: the
meme's source, or its relative frequency. In these observations lies a
key--and very misunderstood--virtue of the selectionist approach
pursued in the tradition pioneered by Boyd & Richerson (1985): the
importance of `non-content' transmission biases.
The memes that do well and spread widely in a population are those
which, for whatever reason, the human brain has a `taste' for. But, as
seen above, some of these `tastes' may have nothing to do with the
actual content of a meme (what the meme actually `says', `prescribes',
or makes people do). Of course, many biases involved in social
learning will focus on a meme's content. Boyd and Richerson call these
`direct biases' (and I am calling them `content biases'). However, as
students of culture from an anthropological perspective, they have
devoted much attention to the long-term consequences of non-content
biases that can cause the accumulation of arbitrary differences
between societies. The non-content biases relevant to this problem are
conformity bias and prestige bias.
Much research in social psychology suggests that humans have biases to
prefer memes that are common relative to competing memes at a
particular cultural `locus' (Miller and McFarland 1991; Kuran 1995;
Asch 1956, 1963). Boyd and Richerson (1985:ch.7) and Henrich &
Boyd (1998) give models to explain the adaptiveness of informational
conformism as helping individuals pick up useful memes that others
have already converged on. Gil-White (2001a) argues that
interactional-norm conformism is adaptive because it gains the
conformist the maximal number of potential interactants.
Boyd and Richerson have also speculated (as indeed have many others)
that prestigious individuals are copied more often than others, and
Henrich & Gil-White (2001) recently took these speculations and
developed a lay model to explain the evolution of such a cognitive
bias, reviewing also the evidence for it extant in the
social-scientific literature. We argue that prestige-bias is adaptive
because successful individuals (i.e. with better memes) tend to have
These two biases care nothing about content: conformity bias cares
about relative frequency, and prestige bias about source. As far as
these biases are concerned, the memes could be `about' anything at
all. Thus, in domains without strong content biases, we should see the
following effects. First, the memes of prestigious individuals will
tend to become more common, but these will be unpredictably different
for people in different communities given that every individual has an
idiosyncratic life history (e.g., I, but not you, may fall off the
horse after washing my feet in a stream, and conclude superstitiously
that the stream was somehow directly responsible), and such
differences will be larger between members of different communities
(even if we both fall of our horses after washing in the stream, I am
more likely to come up with the idea if my group already believes
streams have supernatural powers). This sort of process will engender
arbitrary differences between societies.
The second effect is that, once common, conformity will keep such
memes at high frequency in a community as large as the sample for the
conformist bias. This will keep such arbitrary differences between
societies stable generation after generation. Such differences in turn
become acquired `content biases' on future evolution.
The conformist and prestige biases therefore offer themselves as an
appealing joint explanation for the different historical trajectories
which have caused dramatic variation among the world's cultures.
(Drift can also act to bootstrap arbitrary differences to frequencies
high enough for conformity to kick in and stabilize them.) Together
they can explain why two populations living in the same environment
could become quite different, culturally--something that happens all
B. Don't reduce everything to `content'
The issue of cultural variability has been an anthropological concern
throughout the 20^th century, and it has led to the theoretical excess
of `cultural relativism', which holds that human brains are--for any
and all purposes--blank-slates upon which a local culture can write
literally anything at all. That this is false should have been obvious
(but it hasn't been). But perhaps some anthropologists are now guilty
of overreacting in claiming that the blank-slate view of culture is
The picture of the human mind/brain as a blank slate on which
different cultures freely inscribe their own world-view. . .[is]
incompatible with our current understanding of biology and psychology.
. . . the brain contains many sub-mechanisms, or `modules', which
evolved as adaptations to. . .[ancestral] environmental opportunities
and challenges (Cosmides & Tooby 1987, 1994; Tooby and Cosmides 1989,
1992) [and]...are crucial factors in cultural attraction. They tend to
fix a lot of cultural content in and around the cognitive domain the
processing of which they specialize in.--Sperber (1996:113)
Other anthropologists in this tradition have expressed similar views
in the process of exploring some interesting content biases as the
reason for the widespread recurrence of certain memes. For Boyer
(1994) these are certain religious ideas; for Atran (1998) concepts of
living-kinds; and for Hirschfeld (1996), intuitions about so-called
`races'. These are all valuable enterprises, but these authors seem to
think that the discovery of these content biases amounts to a
refutation of the possibility of acquiring any unconstrained memes
(Boyer 1998), and therefore a refutation of the possibility of stable,
arbitrary differences between cultures (Hirschfeld 1996:21-22), which
in turn implies a refutation that such nonexistent differences could
lead to cultural group selection (Atran 2002:ch.10). One should not
conclude that finding content biases in some domains excludes the
possibility of arbitrary differences in other domains without strong
content biases. Sperber seems to present the issue above as an
either/or question: the brain is not a blank slate, therefore cultural
content is fixed around the cognitive domain of our evolved biases.
But we must adjudicate this on a domain-by-domain basis. The
blank-slate assumption may in fact be a reasonable approximation in a
great many domains.
With a different slant, Blackmore (1999) and Dennett (1995) also argue
for the primacy of content, but they place the focus on the meme,
rather than on innate psychology. Cultural evolution is here a
selective process that makes memes increasingly better propagators. As
Dennett (1995:362) puts it,
Dawkins (1976:214) points out that `...a cultural trait may have
evolved in the way it has simply because it is advantageous to
The first rule of memes, as for genes, is that replication is not
necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are
good at...replicating--for whatever reason!
Memes that `look' like what the brain `wants' will spread even if they
lack the effects that the brain is adaptively `hoping for'. This is
valid, but the emphasis on content as such is overplayed. Dennett and
Dawkins suggest that the only thing affecting a meme's spread is
whether the meme itself is good at replicating, and that selection
will successively edit the meme's content so that it is ever better at
replicating. This is the `meme's eye view': only the properties of a
meme (i.e. its content) determine its spread. But a meme can be lucky.
It can happen to find itself in the head of a prestigious person, or,
thanks to prestige-bias bootstrapping (or even random drift
processes), it may find itself at high frequency through no `fault' of
its own. In both cases the meme's content takes a back seat. In fact,
the meme may be favored despite its content. This means that
prestige-biased and conformist transmission are excellent explanations
for why some maladaptive memes spread and remain stable, even when the
memes themselves are not good at replicating. I hardly think that
Dennett's `first rule of memes' is a rule at all, let alone the first.
It is in no way necessary as an all-encompassing perspective on the
processes involved in cultural transmission.
I am hardly alone in making this criticism (e.g. Conte 2000:88; Laland
& Odling Smee 2000:134; Boyd & Richerson 2000), and I am hopeful that
the authors criticized here can be convinced. After all, Atran
(2002:ch.10), partially acknowledges that "from a cognitive
standpoint, some cultural aspects are almost wholly arbitrary." Boyer
(1998) recognizes the importance of prestige bias, and Sperber
(1996:90-91) explicitly recognizes its power to generate arbitrary
differences between societies. Meanwhile, Blackmore (1999:ch.6) talks
about source biases that I don't believe exist (e.g. `imitate the good
imitators') but which, as source biases, should undermine her view of
meme-selection as solely the result of meme content. Dawkins
(1999:vii) starts his introduction to Blackmore's book by describing
prestige bias. And Dennett and Dawkins are clearly aware of
frequency-dependent effects such as conformism (Dennett 1995:352).
Following these authors' own observations about non-content biases to
their logical conclusions entails that arbitrary differences between
cultures are not only possible but likely, and to the extent that they
are stable they generate selection pressures at the group level (Boyd
& Richerson 1985:ch.7; Henrich & Boyd 1998).
We can now closely evaluate the sometimes facile claims made about
memes, whether by proponents or critics. Susan Blackmore (1999, 2000)
has recently become the most outspoken proponent of the notions I have
just criticized, although the main points are owed to Dennett (1995)
and also to Dawkins (1989). Her most pithy formulation, and the one
that makes all of her intended links, is the following (Blackmore
...memes clearly vary and therefore fit neatly into the evolutionary
algorithm. In other words, memes are replicators. The importance of
this is that replicators are the ultimate beneficiaries of any
evolutionary process. Dennett (1995) urges us always to ask cui bono?
or who benefits? And the answer is the replicators...
I believe every link in this argument to be mistaken. Blackmore begins
by saying that it is because memes vary that they fit into the
evolutionary algorithm. But this is false. Grains of sand vary, and
they do not fit into the evolutionary algorithm. Memes fit into the
algorithm only if they vary and remain reasonably stable in the
process of transmission. If mutation were both infinite and infinitely
random, then "what is passed on in imitation" (how Blackmore [2000:25]
defines memes) would certainly vary but they could not be analyzed
with Darwinian tools.
Second, Blackmore says that because memes fit into the evolutionary
algorithm, they must be replicators. This again is false. Units can
fit into the evolutionary algorithm even if they don't replicate, as I
have argued with the example of Bob's tennis serve. Boyd & Richerson
(1985:ch.3) already demonstrated long ago that this is true even for
the case of blending inheritance (though nobody ever takes notice).
Recently, Henrich & Boyd (2002) provide another demonstration of why
replication is a red herring.
Third, Blackmore argues that because memes are replicators, and since
"replicators are the ultimate beneficiaries of any evolutionary
process," our analyses must always be in terms of how the memes
benefit. False again, as shown by the existence of non-content biases.
But this last argument of Blackmore's is so `sexy'--it is responsible
for most of the attention which her work, and the preceding work of
Dennett and Dawkins has received--that it is worth a thorough
refutation, which I turn to next.
VIII. Memetic Drive--the `meme's eye view' gone mad
Can we reduce everything ultimately to the interests of `memes'?
Blackmore (1999:8) says that "We humans. . .have become just the
physical `hosts' needed for the memes to get around." But this would
mean that, just as a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg
(the `selfish gene' perspective), a brain is just a meme's way of
making another meme (the `selfish meme'). But lest anybody forget,
genes have something to do with making brains!
The problem here is that `ultimate' is not as definite a concept as
Blackmore might like to imagine. Since, in the long run, as the
economists say, we are all dead, we must specify the time-scale for
any evolutionary problem. Human brains are under selection pressure to
develop genetically specified meme-catching biases that filter out
maladaptive memes and zero-in on adaptive ones, and this means that
genes and memes are caught in an interactive, historical feedback
process--what Boyd & Richerson (1985) have called `dual inheritance.'
Even when Blackmore (1999) talks about dual inheritance, however, she
is fond of reducing everything to memes, including the mind. This is
her concept of `memetic drive' which is supposedly her most radical
idea (Aunger 2000:11), and which underlies most of her arguments about
what `memetics,' conceived as the study of selfish replicators, can
Genes are instructions for making proteins, stored in the cells of the
body and passed on in reproduction. Their competition drives the
evolution of the biological world. Memes are instructions for carrying
out behavior, stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by
imitation. Their competition drives the evolution of the
On the one hand we have the brain, a biological organ, specified by
genes. Blackmore recognizes that competition among genes is
responsible for the features of biological organs, so one may hazard
that by `mind' she cannot simply mean `brain'. But if so the best we
can do is say that `mind' is the set of interconnections that end up
instantiated in the brain at the end of some developmental process
which involves cultural inputs. In other words, the mind is partly a
bunch of memes--partly, because not everything that ends up
instantiated in the brain is acquired socially, as some of it is
To make the best case for Blackmore's argument, let us artificially
restrict `mind' to "connections that result from the social
acquisition of information." Can we now say that competition among
memes drives the evolution of the mind in the same way that
competition among genes drives the evolution of the biological world?
Yes. If we define `mind' as whatever memes end up in a brain, then,
tautologically, competition among memes drives the evolution of minds.
The tautology is not entirely useless because the meme concept
emphasizes Darwinian processes that have been neglected. But it is
better to say it without a tautology which, to boot, requires a new
technical definition of `mind' (though I understand this is another
sexy term with magical properties). Better to say: "short term
cultural evolution is the product of competition among memes because a
`culture' is a distribution of memes." Is this a truly new or radical
argument? Certainly not by the standards of cultural transmission
theory, relative to which Blackmore (1999:15-17) believes she has
advanced so much that her ideas are in fact christening an entirely
new and autonomous discipline which has yet to begin.
But perhaps my translation was not adequate, and Blackmore has
something else in mind. Perhaps by `mind' she really does mean
`brain.' In chapter six of her 1999 book she actually argues that
memes selected for big brains to serve their own--the memes'--
`interests' (what she calls `memetic drive'). In other words, the
`interests' of memes set processes in motion that select for genes,
which in turn code for brains that prefer those same memes. A brain is
just a meme's way of making another meme.
This is radical but wrong. A meme cannot select for a gene unless it
is widespread (meta-populationally) and stable (inter-generationally).
But there are only two avenues for such a widespread and stable meme
to emerge. In the first, the meme is selected by an innate `content
bias' in the brain's design, making it widespread and stable. But for
Blackmore this is a catch-22, because what puts the meme in a position
to select for the gene is the fact that this same gene evolved first.
The second avenue is if a process such as group selection through
conformist transmission (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Henrich & Boyd 1998;
Boyd & Gintis, in prep.) makes a meme widespread and stable, even
though there was originally no innate content bias to prefer it (e.g.
some form of altruism). Suppose that, once common, it is costly not to
acquire this meme, or else it is costly to do so slowly or with errors
(for example, suppose that the meme to punish non-altruists has also
spread in this fashion). In such a case genes coding for an innate
content bias specific to that meme will be favored (here, genes for
altruistic tendencies), and we may say that the memes have selected
for the genes in a Baldwinian process.
This can certainly work, but it is not radical by the standards of
cultural transmission theorists, some of whom have been pushing this
sort of argument for years (e.g. Boyd & Richerson 1985), and it also
does not, as Blackmore claims it does, put the memes in the "driver's
seat" to the detriment of the `interests' of the genes when it comes
to brain design. Much less does it call for an entirely new
One must not confuse the true statement that competition among
memes--the replicative `interests' of memes--is what causes (short
term) cultural evolution, with the false statement that the
replicative `interests' of memes--against the `interests' of
genes--drive the longer-term process of brain design. The brain cannot
be designed against the `interests' of genes simply because those
genes have to be selected for, and they cannot be selected for without
differential reproductive success! Thus, when memes select for genes
it will be only because the `interests' of memes and genes coincide.
Granted, they may only coincide after the meme has become widespread
(and this is very interesting), but they will still have to coincide.
And a coincidence is just that--it is not a radical "turning of the
tables" on our understanding of what shapes brains, as Blackmore would
have it. The design of the brain will still be about biological
reproductive success in the environments that selected for this
design, not for the propagative success of memes in the absence of a
biological instrumentality. Let us stop worrying about non questions
based on false observations, such as "We seem to have a brain `surplus
to requirements, surplus to adaptive needs' (Cronin 1991:355)," and,
". . .our abilities are out of line with those of other living
creatures and they do not seem obviously designed for survival"
I conclude by listing the morals. The first is that we need not
narrowly genetic Darwinian thinking, but a `population thinking'
attitude that considers--in its own terms--the properties of
statistical populations capable of inheritance and subject to
selection (Boyd & Richerson 2000). A narrow comparison of the details
of genes and memes is not the right test, though there is hardly any
reason to abandon the heuristic horsepower of the analogy.
The second moral is that if we believe psychological biases are the
main source of selective forces acting on memes, then the discovery
and implications of non-content biases should be taken seriously. This
detracts nothing from the importance of content biases, it merely adds
to the repertoire of forces that must be considered.
The third moral is that we have talked quite enough. The only reason
that there is this much misunderstanding about what memes can or
cannot be, what they must or must not be for Darwinian analyses to
apply, is that psychologists and anthropologists know so little
evolutionary genetics, on the one hand, and this is not easy to
remedy. But on the other hand, psychologists and anthropologists have
done very little to advance something they are eminently qualified to
do: analyze the natural histories of particular memes in different
domains, and the proximate cognitive biases responsible for such
processes. Some of the points I have made here came to me as
revelations after tracing the spread of one particular meme in the
communities I study in western Mongolia (Gil-White, in prep.), and
others as a result of trying to give a full account of one particular
social-learning bias (Henrich & Gil-White 2001). More revelations will
follow, as in any science. But, as in any science, we need to resist
the pleasures of navel-gazing in the armchair in order to get our
hands dirty and toil at the empirical problems.
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 Unlike Sperber (2000:163) I don't think there is anything
trivial about this definition, and neither do I think that it
corresponds to how anthropologists have always thought about culture,
as he claims. Implicit in this definition is the idea that memes are
units, that they are materially stored, and that they are subject to
selection. These intuitions open the way to a completely different
form of analysis of culture from that which we anthropologists had
been traditionally contemplating. As Sperber (1996) himself has
repeatedly accused, anthropologists have been prone to mystical
approaches to culture that put it `out there' in the ether somewhere
rather than in people's brains, and they have failed to examine the
processes of transmission in its phenomenal and cognitive details.
Making the units of cultural transmission analogous to genes, however
loosely, which is what the `meme' idea in any of its forms does,
produces an entirely new perspective--in fact, a revolution of sorts.
1. mailto:fjgil at psych.upenn.edu
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