The word 'meme', popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has recently gained entry into the OED as 'an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation'. But the idea that culture is transmitted by imitation and learning in a manner analogous but not reducible to natural selection has been around for a long time, and many other terms have been used in describing it. Darwin himself, when he came to consider 'the causes which lead to the advance of morality', concluded that 'natural selection effects but little' and looked instead to such things as 'the approbation of our fellow-men' and 'example and imitation'. Much later, when the mechanism of natural selection had come to be understood in greater depth and detail than had been possible for Darwin himself, the American psychologist Donald Campbell and others began to develop the notion that cultural evolution (including the emergence of such things as theories of cultural evolution) is also driven by a competitive process of variation and selection. Campbell called his Presidential Address of 1975 to the American Psychological Association, 'On the conflicts between biological and social evolution and between psychology and moral tradition'. But how does cultural evolution actually work?
LRB 10 June 1999 | PDF Download