Day 060 - Cultural evolution

Submitted by Sam on 20 July, 2011 - 00:50

We have seen that the architecture of our brain includes structures specifically optimized for the simulation of observed behaviour, allowing us to mirror other people's point of view. We have seen VS Ramachandran conjecture that the development of culture was closely bound to the evolution of these mirror neurons, as imitation allowed skills to be transferred across the generations. This neural basis for the basic ingredients of learning, culture and language systems is, of course, encoded by genes – the biochemical replicators that make copies of themselves every time a cell divides, and which when expressed translate into proteins which create vehicles (i.e. bodies and their behaviour) to differentially aid their own replication. But with the development of the mirror neuron system (and whatever other necessary neural structures), genes have created a brand new substrate for replication, in which a brand new kind of replicator is able to achieve evolutionary change at a vastly accelerated rate. Identified by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, this new substrate is human culture itself.

Dawkins defined the new form of replicator as the meme, a way of thinking, whether a clothes fashion, a particular tune, a catch phrase and so on, which propagates in the 'meme pool' by a process of imitation, copying itself from brain to brain. Particularly fertile memes parasitize minds, turning them into vehicles for their own self-propagation, just as a scientist hears of a good idea and cites it in his articles and refers it to his students and colleagues. As memes can be expressed as physical structures, as particular electrochemical patterns in brains, they can be seen to quite literally replicate many times across populations as they disseminate, undergoing mutations just as genes do. The most potent memes will persist for generations the world over, physically replicated in the brains of many millions of people.

Memes have a survival value, and have to compete for the resources of the human brain. The principle resource a meme contends for is time, competing with rival memes to dominate the attention of the human brain, and become 'successful' by being transmitted to other brains through spoken word, advertisements, books and so on. Some memes will exploit particular evolutionary niches where they become phenomenally successful for a very short period of time, like pop songs and twitter trends, whilst others have a very high survival value, and may last for thousands of years.

One of the most persistent memes (or more accurately, meme complexes) that Dawkins has famously focused his attention on is that of religion, which has had a great stability throughout all human cultures for many generations. The superficially plausible answers that religion provides are highly infectious, offering a buffer against human inadequacies which provides real comfort in the face of deeply troubling questions. Successive generations have been faced with the same troubling questions, and so the God meme has been copied many times over.

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