Since Richard Dawkins first coined the term ‘meme’, the meme and its associated research programme has been mired in controversy. There have been many forceful critiques of the ways in which memetics relies on an overly strong analogy between memes and genes, which is doomed to fail due to the deep and myriad differences between cultural traits and genes. Most, I think, would consider the question settled, and little contemporary cultural evolution work relies on memetics as a frame for understanding culture. Have we not already, then, gone ‘beyond the meme’? The title of this volume might suggest this is a rehashing of old debates. However, this edited collection faces up to issues within cultural evolution that are much broader than the programme of memetics itself and that are highly relevant today.
We are, arguably, living in a time where evolutionary biology is moving away from the primacy of the gene, and embracing a more complex, and perhaps more comprehensive, picture of biological life. This ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ seeks to re-centre processes such as development, niche construction, and non-genetic inheritance within evolutionary thinking (for example, Laland et al. ). Given this sea change, the reliance of cultural evolution research on models adapted in part from population genetics might seem outdated. Much past and contemporary cultural evolution work takes a ‘population thinking’ perspective, where differences between individuals are abstracted away from, in order to model the population-level consequences of individual interactions. While memetics may be an unpopular research programme currently, population thinking is widespread, including in work within dual inheritance theory and cultural epidemiology. This population approach is seen as a key part of what sets cultural evolution apart from other approaches to culture. For example, ethnographic work within cultural anthropology tends to favour ‘thick descriptions’ of culture, where the aim is to capture individual differences and their particular contexts in high levels of detail, rather than to abstract away from them. This methodological difference remains a key source of suspicion regarding cultural evolution from the social sciences.
This volume is a timely attempt to tackle these worries head on, bringing together a variety of perspectives on topics including scientific research, innovation, and cultural evolution early in human history, in order to provide a compelling argument for complicating our understanding of culture, and offering suggestions for what this more complex picture might look like. One thread that runs through many of the chapters is the concept of ‘cultural scaffolding’, developed extensively in previous work by William Wimsatt (for example, Wimsatt and Griesemer ; Wimsatt ). Cultural scaffolds shape learning trajectories, allowing the subsequent acquisition of new cultural traits or skills, and provide a way of understanding cultural change that is not limited to the consequences of aggregated individual-level behaviours. Here we are provided with ample examples of what these cultural scaffolds might look like in a range of contexts.
In terms of audience, this collection should be appealing to both sides of the aisle: Those who have been critical or wary of cultural evolutionary approaches, but are open to seeing how the divide between cultural evolution and other disciplines might be healed, may find something here that softens their stance. On the other hand, those who are fully on board with evolutionary approaches to culture already, but want to understand new directions in the field, will find sophisticated and useful thought here that engages more fully with the complexities of cultural life.
In Alan Love and William Wimsatt’s introduction to the volume, they acknowledge the worries of those wary of cultural evolutionary approaches, including the concerns that these frameworks rely too heavily on abstract modelling and ‘thin’ rather than ‘thick’ descriptions of phenomena. They extend a hand to those turned off by the perception that cultural evolutionary work dismisses social science perspectives, while asserting the generality and completeness of their own framework, and arguing persuasively for the need for a pluralistic, interdisciplinary approach to culture. In the first chapter, Wimsatt elaborates on this more complex view of cultural systems, suggesting ‘evo-devo’ as a more natural analogy to cultural evolution than population genetics, and calling for more interdisciplinary linkages and co-ordination. He offers a path towards meeting this goal, through attention to ‘development’ (sequential acquisition of cultural elements), and the processes of generative entrenchment and cultural scaffolding. This framing may go some way towards appeasing the worries of critics, as well as providing much needed new avenues for the framing and development of cultural evolution research. The following chapters provide a sense of what this integrated, interdisciplinary cultural evolution programme might look like.
We begin with analyses of cultural systems in action. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on cultural evolution in the context of scientific research. Sabina Leonelli draws on social movement theory to offer an analysis of the development of data sharing practices and infrastructure building in data-intensive biology. Nancy Nersessian shares insights from her ethnographic work on a biomedical engineering lab, characterized here as an ‘evolving distributed cognitive–cultural system’, with an interconnected array of problems, constraints, models, technologies, and researchers. Michel Janssen explores the metaphor of arches and scaffolds for characterizing theory change in twentieth-century physics. Although they start from a (largely) historical or ethnographic investigation of the phenomena in question, these chapters could be considered case studies of cultural systems, which can then be seen through the lens of generative entrenchment and/or scaffolding, rather than as examples that are marshalled in order to provide support for a broader framework. Instead of focusing on making the case for a cultural evolutionary perspective for understanding these systems or changes, they serve more generally to highlight the importance of attending to the specificities of cultural dynamics and the structures in cultural systems that guide learning, behaviour, and thought, in order to understand these systems and how they change over time.
Following this, we move to more explicit consideration of cultural evolution modelling. Whereas the previous chapters involve analyses of changes that could be characterized in cultural evolution terms, the next few chapters consider how cultural evolution models could be developed or improved to better engage with the complexities and multi-layeredness of cultural phenomena. Foster and Evans provide a way of modelling cultural phylogenies in cases where cultural ‘individuals’ may have multiple ‘parents’, as is often the case with inventions. This is complemented by the following chapter, by Mark Bedau, which argues for the use of model systems in the study of cultural evolution, with the potential for epistemic benefits of the sort provided by model organisms in biology. He, too, focuses on inventions, arguing that tracing technology patents could provide such a model system. Marshall Abrams then lays out computer simulations that model the changing interplay between religious ideas, farming practices, and democratic institutions in Bali rice farming communities. These simulations indicate that success-biased cultural transmission could provide a partial explanation for the spread of those religious patterns that support successful crop management systems.
We then move away from current cultural systems. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 look backwards in time, towards cultural changes early in human history. Gilbert Tostevin outlines the challenge of integrating insights from archaeology with cultural evolutionary theory, and suggests ways to bridge the obstacles to integration, relying on the role of scaffolding in learning. Salikoko Mufwene offers an application of generative entrenchment and scaffolding in the context of the evolution of language. Massimo Maiocchi also uses the concept of scaffolding to understand the emergence and development of writing in early Mesopotamia. One focus of cultural evolution work has been on how humans developed the complex cultural institutions and systems that structure our lives today, and the ways in which this cultural development have been crucial to our success as a species; these illuminating chapters provide insights that bear on these key questions.
The final three chapters end on a more forward-looking note. Joseph Martin also addresses technological change, here considering how cultural scaffolding could provide a framework for understanding the effects of new technologies and for developing more effective policies to unlock their benefits. Paul Smaldino provides an analysis of social identity, where the multidimensionality of social identity in large-scale societies is interpreted as a solution to coordination problems, allowing for widespread cooperation. The book concludes with the exploration of ‘wicked systems’, by Claes Andersson, Anton Törnberg, and Petter Törnberg, a class of systems that are complex, complicated, and poorly decomposable. These systems include societies and ecosystems that remain, despite the best efforts of many, difficult to intervene upon. This energizing conclusion to the volume leaves us with a sense of how cultural evolutionary work could usefully contribute to solutions to contemporary, real-world problems.
Together, this collection of chapters makes for a dynamic overview of many different aspects of cultural systems, spanning a range of topics that have been of sustained interest within both cultural evolution and the social sciences: innovation, scientific research, early human cultural change, social structures, and identity. This is a clear strength of Beyond the Meme: the broad scope of topics covered and relevancy of these topics to key questions in the study of culture, as well as the variety in approaches and expertise of the authors, goes a long way to fulfilling its promise of an interdisciplinary, multifaceted cultural evolutionary framework.
However, some concerns do arise, particularly with the concept of cultural scaffolding, which features in the majority of these chapters, playing various roles. While in some cases the notion of scaffolding does seem to play a central role, in others it is more peripheral or metaphorical. Pinning down the explanatory role that cultural scaffolding could and should play within cultural evolution, or our understanding of culture more broadly, remains somewhat unarticulated in this volume. This has the potential to lead to two kinds of worries. First, if scaffolding is more metaphorical, such as in Bedau’s analysis, or seemingly peripheral, as in Leonelli’s chapter, which draws more heavily on social movement theory than anything typically seen as within the domain of cultural evolution as a discipline, the question of whether we need to adopt a cultural evolutionary perspective at all may be unclear to some. Those social scientists who remain wary of cultural evolution as a whole, as noted by Love and Wimsatt in their introduction, might contend that cultural scaffolding is not particular to an evolutionary view and has been present in anthropological and historical work all along. This might have particular force if scaffolding is interpreted broadly, loosely, or metaphorically, referring only in general terms to how social structures and institutions guide behaviours or practices.
The second worry comes from the other side of the divide. In many of the chapters we see a perspective on cultural systems that differs in meaningful ways from other cultural evolutionary approaches. Those familiar with these other traditions might struggle to see how the new complexities could be successfully integrated with their approach. Some might be disappointed by the lack of sustained engagement with long-standing cultural evolutionary frameworks. With some exceptions, there is surprisingly little mention of key authors in the field, such as the dual inheritance or cultural selection work of (for example) Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Joseph Henrich, or the cultural attractor theory of Dan Sperber, Olivier Morin, and others. Those invested in these approaches would have to look elsewhere for clear paths towards successful integration with the kind of cultural evolutionary analyses presented here. Some hold-outs might still be sceptical of the benefits of embracing a developmental view of cultural systems, introducing complexity and depth that may be at the expense of generality and predictive power.
Although there may be some that remain unconvinced either of the merit of cultural evolution as a whole or of the need for this complex, integrated version of it, nevertheless, Beyond the Meme remains a fascinating collection of chapters written by authors with deep wells of expertise and who provide insight after insight into the workings of dynamic cultural systems and how to study them. As our understanding of the biological world becomes more messy, complicated, and extended, so too must our understanding of culture.
Ruhr University Bochum
Wimsatt, W. C. and Griesemer, J. R. : ‘Reproducing Entrenchments to Scaffold Culture: The Central Role of Development in Cultural Evolution’, in R. Sansom and R. N. Brandon (eds), Integrating Evolution and Development: From Theory to Practice, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 227–323.