Cultural Genes & Species

Bill Benzon (
Sat, 21 Jun 1997 10:47:52 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 21 Jun 1997 10:47:52 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Cultural Genes & Species

I have stated in various posts that my concept of the cultural analog of
the gene is quite different from that of "orthodox" memetics. For reasons I
have stated in papers at my website
( and I think the genes of
culture are out there in the physical environment (which includes, as one
of you pointed out, other people) while the "orthodox" position is that the
genes of culture are in the brain. From my point of view it is the cultural
phenotype which resides in the brain and on which selection operates.
However, it is clear that at least some (all?) "orthodox" memeticians also
regard the brain as a selective environment, one operating on cultural
genes rather than cultural phenotypes. So, we agree that brains exert
selective force on culture. What we disagree on is just what that selection
is being exerted on, cultural genes or cultural phenotypes.

So, why not have both in the brain? Why not put the cultural genes and the
cultural phenotypes in the same physical environment? My guess is that, if
you do that, you don't really have any cultural phenotype at all, just a
pool of cultural genes. But so what?

I don't have an answer I really like. But I can say a thing or two. In the
biological realm, genes encode information about how to construct an
organism. But we can also think of them as encoding information about the
environment. For a given generation, the genome produces a set of
phenotypes. Most of them reproduce, but some do not. When, in the course of
this process, some genes are eliminated from the pool, we can think of the
genome as having "learned" something about the environment. The species
will survive as long as the environment does change more rapidly than the
genome's ability to learn about the environment by proposing phenotypic

What happens to this process if the genes and phenotypes are subject to the
same selective forces? How can the genotype "learn" anything? How can we
even talk of genotype and phenotype?

What I suspect is that putting both cultural genes and cultural phenotypes
in the brain amounts to saying there are no cultural phenotypes, that
cultural evolution is analogous to prebiotic evolution where we just had a
soup of replicating macromolecules -- I believe Mario has made such a
suggestion. However, culture does seem to have large-scale persistent
regularities which feel like persistent "species," and those "species" can
easily be analyzed into large numbers of constituent units. So, I'm not
willing to give up on cultural species. And, since I want those species to
live, change, and die according to selective forces in communities of human
brains, I seem pretty much forced into thinking of the external world as
the locus of genes. Which is, admittely, a rather strange notion.

For, if we think of the biological genome as "learning about" the physical
environment, then my position would seem to force me into thinking about
the external world as somehow "learning about" the interior of the
collective brain. That's wierd.

What does happen, of course, is that humans reconstruct the physical world
in ways arguably more substantial than any other species. So the physical
world does come to bear the impress of human preference -- including, of
course, our love of spandrels. For the moment I'm content to think of that
as an adequate analogue to "genomic learning." As for the remaining
residual strangeness, well, cultural evolution is, after all, quite
different from biological evolution.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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