On The Road To A Unified Science Of Culture

1797 words - 8 pages

On the Road to a Unified Science of Culture: Beware potholes

Culture has developed far beyond the requirements for survival, such that our forays into art, music and pure mathematics are 'useless' from the biological point of view. In "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins (1987)5 introduced the concept of the meme, analogous to but separate from the gene, to explain this puzzling phenomenon. The resultant field, memetics, has been a recent battleground between various disciplines. While a natural science approach to culture remains the stage for the debut of a much hoped-for unified science, interdisciplinary work has yet to transcend traditional academic lines. Ignorance, prejudice and ...view middle of the document...

Similarly, Plotkin (2002)9 thinks of complete intertheoretic reduction as the unattainable ideal, but believes that the possibility of some reduction by explanatory causal mechanisms extending across some levels is sufficient. He emphasizes that unified science requires all science to be done, and so does not sideline the work of social scientists. More importantly, both scientists believe a unified science of culture is possible because humans are products of nature and natural processes.

Although a relatively new field, thus far held at bay by conceptual disagreements, the ranks from which the meme debate pulls its opponents is admirably wide. Cultural evolutionists Boyd and Richerson (2000a)2 propose the study of cultural change as a population process, as most cultural information is transmitted not through genes but teaching and imitation, which also affect which memes are acquired. Conte (2000)4 , a psychologist, points to social cognitive processes as both means of acquisition and source of selection, in which the autonomous memetic agent is liable to social influence but decides, based on internal criteria and motives, whether to accept or reject it. Evolutionary biologists Laland and Brown (2002)8 suggest applying tests of genetic evolution, such as searching for character displacement, convergence and shifts towards new equilibriums after sudden disturbances, to determine where memetic evolution occurs.

The criticisms of memetics similarly represent the lenses of different fields. Plotkin, an evolutionary psychologist, objects to imitation as the only mechanism of transmission, given that much of culture revolves around shared understandings, values and beliefs, which can only be acquired through memory and abstraction (2000)9 . It has also been argued that natural selection acting on random variation is not the only process shaping human culture. Memes are often transformed during transmission as a result of purposeful human decision-making (Dennett 1995)6, improvement and synthesis (Boyd & Richerson 2000b)3.

Though these suggestions hail from different disciplines, they stand individually rooted rather than bridging separate fields. It is because of this lack of collaboration that memetics has managed to limp along while the group of social scientists traditionally charged with the study of culture remains absent from the table. Bloch, a social anthropologist "well-disposed" towards memetics (Bloch 2000)1, tactfully points out that anthropologists have known since Tylor and Boas in the late nineteenth century, that information can now replicate, persist and transform by non-genetic means. Sadly, memeticists have proven themselves quite ignorant of the existing literature expanding on the points they are now only proposing.

Anthropologists also express important objections to the meme. The transmission of culture by imitation runs against the understanding that culture is actively made and...

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