The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

20
Memes
Universal Acid or a
Better Mousetrap?

Among the many vivid metaphors in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, one stands out. The understanding of how cumulative natural selection gives rise to adaptations is, Daniel Dennett says, like a “universal acid”—an idea so powerful and corrosive of conventional wisdom that it dissolves all attempts to contain it within biology. Like most good ideas, this one is very simple: once replicators (material objects that are faithfully copied) come to exist, some will replicate more rapidly than others, leading to adaptation by natural selection. The great power of the idea is that the resulting adaptations can be understood by asking what leads to efficient, rapid replication. Given that ideas seem to replicate, it is natural that Dawkins (1976, 1982), Dennett (1995), and others have explored the possibility of using this idea to explain cultural evolution.

Natural selection was not Darwin's only powerful, far-reaching idea. Ernst Mayr (1982) has argued that what he calls “population thinking” was also among Darwin's foundational contributions to biology. Before Darwin, species were thought to be essential, unchanging types, like geometric figures and chemical elements. Darwin saw that species were populations of organisms that carried a variable pool of inherited information through time. To understand the evolution of species, biologists had to account for the processes that changed the nature of that inherited information. Darwin thought that the most important processes were natural selection, sexual selection, and the “inherited effects of use and disuse.” We now know that the last process is not important in organic evolution— unlike Darwin, modern biologists do not believe that the sons of blacksmiths inherit their father's mighty biceps. Nowadays biologists think many processes that Darwin never dreamed of are important, including segregation, recombination, gene conversion, and meiotic drive. Nonetheless, modern biology is

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