Sunday, October 21, 2007

Review: Genes, Memes and Human History

Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution by Stephen Shennan

I remember this as an interesting application of evolutionary psychology and memetic theory to archeology, written by an archaeologist. The writing style isn't very engaging though - it's a very slow slog at times.

Shennan does, however, have one of the best approaches to the debate about memetic theory:

"It seems that we still do not understand the psychological mechanisms involved in cultural inheritance, which remain the object of ongoing debate and investigation. However, rather than worry too much about this and assume that we cannot make any progress until the mechanism is fully understood, the way forward for archaeologists and anthropologists, if not for psychologists, seems to be to ignore the psychological mechanisms and accept that, whatever they may be, they lead to culture having the characteristics of an inheritance system with adaptive consequences. Even if the meme concept in the strict sense is problematical, the word meme has been such a successful meme itself that it represents a useful shorthand way of referring to the idea that culture is an evolutionary system involving inheritance. Archeology is particularly interested in those cases where the information passed on concerns ways of making and using artifacts. ... We can ask what are the population level processes characteristic of this inheritance system. This is what biologists did before they understood genetics. They could still measure the heritability of particular traits from one generation to the next without knowing the mechanisms involved. Indeed, it is well known that Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection while holding a completely erroneous view about how genetic transmission worked. "

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