Does Culture Really Evolve Like Organisms Do? – Facts So Romantic

It’s become common to think about cultural change the same way we think about biological evolution—so common that it may obscure whether the comparison really works. Though there remain many questions yet to answer about evolution, it’s a process that’s well-understood. We know, in great detail, how variations emerge, how they’re passed on hereditarily, and how natural selection and other forces push organisms toward change. Evolution is integrated with almost everything else we know about biology.

It’s been much harder to pin down the exact workings of how ideas change, which has led some scientists to wonder just how deep and literal is the connection between biological and cultural evolution. The greatest skepticism has been aimed at the idea of memes, ideas that are purportedly the individual units of cultural evolution, paralleling the role of genes in biological evolution. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme and proposed the analogy in 1976, in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Some researchers tried to extend the analogy, arguing that the study of memes was a bona fide field of science. But after many years, the study of memetics remains stuck at square one, unable to overcome some existential questions: What is…

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