A Recipe for Learning

How human culture evolves—either in tandem with or independently of biological evolution—is a field of study filled with knowledgeable and erudite practitioners, many of whom do not fully agree with one another.29 Its chief concerns can be seen in the examples earlier. Where do the constraints of biology leave off and those of culture begin—how much nature and how much nurture? How do biological and cultural evolution differ? How do they mutually influence each other’s evolution?

Can the principles of Darwinism be extended to human societies? Note the parallels to our question of sequences. The claim of this book is that sequences of DNA in the cell and sequences of language in human culture are not two different things but, rather, two different examples of one sort of thing. Researchers in cultural evolution are claiming that biological evolution and cultural evolution are not two different processes but, rather, two different examples of the same kind of process, Darwinian natural selection. “Instead of genetics forming the fundamental analog to which all other selection processes must be compared,” says David Hull, “all examples of selection processes are treated on a par.”30

In other words, any theory that tries to link biological and cultural evolution should tell us what is important, as distinguished from what may be true but unimportant. “Generalization in science starts from a deliberately copious array of different phenomena and processes,” say sociologist Howard Aldrich and colleagues. “Where possible, scientists adduce shared principles.” Social and biological evolution are completely different at the level of detail, they conclude, but this is “ultimately irrelevant to the project of generalizing Darwinism,” true but unimportant.31

In the present context, how can our understanding of sequences and boundary conditions inform the study of cultural evolution? In particular, what can we learn when we tease apart the rate-dependent and rate-independent aspects of culture? Some scholars of cultural evolution do recognize this distinction. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson identify culture itself with its rate- independent element: “Culture is information capable of affecting individuals’ phenotypes.”32 They continue, “the relationship between culture and behavior is similar to the relationship between genotype and phenotype in noncultural organisms.”33 In the same vein, “culture is most usefully regarded as semantic information,” say Alex Mesoudi and colleagues, “that is transmitted from individual to individual via social learning and expressed in behaviour and artifacts.”34 In short, rate-independent culture (information) constrains rate- dependent behavior.

A central problem of cultural evolution involves the spread and adoption of cultural traits—things like backgammon, Christmas trees, eggs Benedict, and archery—within a human population. How does it come to pass that certain behaviors, technologies, and texts succeed for many generations over large geographical areas, whereas others do not? Research shows there are many reasons, including the utility of the behavior, the ease of learning it, how well it builds upon and harmonizes with existing behaviors, and the social status of those who adopt it.33

Dawkins, who brought us the extended phenotype, is also responsible for the мете, originally proposed as a replicating unit of culture analogous to the gene as the replicating unit of biology. “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch- phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches,” he says.

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the ineme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.36

Those who study cultural evolution disagree over whether the meme is a useful concept, whether memes even exist and, if they do, what form they take.37

None of this is made easier by the fact that тете itself has acquired a distinctive folk usage on social media. For users of these services, memes are funny or provocative images, bits of text, or snippets of video that spread virally, often with modification. Thus, тете has achieved its own great reproductive success, although perhaps not as Dawkins intended.38 Nonetheless, no more successful term has been invented to describe a cultural trait, so тете it is.

Dawkins invites us “to consider a meme as like a parasite which commandeers an organism for its own replicative benefit,” says Daniel Dennett.

Some memes are like domesticated animals; they are prized for their benefits, and their replication is closely fostered and relatively well understood by their human owners. Some memes are more like rats; they thrive in the human environment in spite of being positively selected against— ineffectually—by their unwilling hosts. And some are more like bacteria or other viruses, commandeering aspects of human behavior (provoking sneezing, for instance) in their ‘efforts’ to propagate from host to host.39

As offered by Dawkins, however, meme fails to make one crucial distinction; it does not acknowledge the important difference between the rate-independent and rate-dependent elements of human culture. A sonnet, changing a tire, and a microwave oven might all be memes under Dawkins’s definition yet, as we have seen, they are not the same. A sonnet is a rate-independent sequence. Changing a tire is a rate-dependent behavior. A microwave oven is an artifact constructed through rate-dependent behavior constrained by rate-independent sequences.40 If genes are sequences and memes are to be the cultural analogs of genes, how can they also be anything other than sequences? Replicating a gene always means replicating a linear pattern, but by Dawkins’s definition, copying a meme can be copying anything—a behavior, an artifact, or a sequence.

To make clear this distinction, I will define тете strictly in terms of rate independence and use it in the sense of recipe.'" This usage “captures the essence of most standard anthropological definitions of‘cultural trait,”’ write Michael O’Brien and colleagues, “behavioural information that can be transmitted between people about how (and when, where, and why, to lesser extents) to produce something (that may or may not leave a material trace).’42 A тете or recipe is a set of instructions for doing something.

Recipes behaviorally link “two general structures—ingredients and rules— that can be reconfigured to form different recipes and thus different products,” say O’Brien and colleagues. “The same is true in biology with respect to protein interaction networks, in which the same ‘ingredients’ can be activated in different orders by different rules to form different cellular products” (references omitted).43 Their “two general structures—ingredients and rules” specify the affordances of the recipe. The ingredient list describes salient features of the environment, the objects of perception to be recognized. The rules or instructions guide the relevant behaviors.

When you think of a recipe, you probably imagine a set of written instructions for preparing a meal. The rate-independent sequences of the recipe orchestrate your rate-dependent behavior as you assemble the dish. The recipe constrains your perceptual system to identify and select ingredients and equipment, and your motor behavioral system to slice, dice, crack, peel, mix, sift, etc.

This intuitive sense of recipe as a behavioral boundary condition is exemplified by anthropologist F.T. Cloak, Jr.: “Why don’t I use a recipe to make a cake? The answer is. Because the recipe uses me to make the cake.” He continues, “I, a living organism, am the instrument of a set of instructions. If you are doubtful of that, ask yourself, Do the instructions do what I say, or do I do what the instructions say?’44 Furthermore, the sequences of a recipe can be replicated, and whether they are replicated often depends on a selective process.43 In other words, if you like the cake, you can ask the baker to copy the recipe for you. If you don’t like the cake, you won’t.

This is a stylized example in which the rate-independent and rate-dependent elements are clear, replication is explicit, and the selection criteria are straightforward. Most of culture is not like this; in fact, the reality of cake baking is not like this. It is one thing to hand a cake recipe to an experienced baker and quite another to give it to someone who has never even cracked an egg. The former can be configured successfully by the rate-independent sequences without further help; the latter would also need a lot of spoken instruction, ostensive demonstration, and real-time monitoring. Written recipes may be necessary but are often insufficient.