A New Perspective on the Production and Evolution of Cultures
Edited by Enrico Bertacchini, Giangiacomo Bravo, Massimo Marrelli and Walter Santagata
Chapter 3: Cultural Commons and Cultural Evolution
Giangiacomo Bravo* INTRODUCTION 1 Richard Dawkins, who first introduced the term “meme”, described it as a replicator: a unit of cultural transmission which propagates itself in the meme pool analogous to genes in the gene pool (Dawkins 1976: ch. 11). More generally, he proposed a deep analogy between biological and cultural evolution, with memes (the cultural equivalent of genes) replicating through imitation, mutating when new cultural variants are produced, and competing for human brain resources. While this analogy must not be taken too far – critics underline, for instance, that memes often have weakly defined boundaries, replicate with much less fidelity than genes or that selection pressures on memes derive from little understood mechanisms (for example, Wimsatt 1999; Atran 2001; Richerson and Boyd 2005) – at a more general level there is little doubt that some kind of evolutionary process underlies culture development and change (Dawkins 1976; Boyd and Richerson 1985; Plotkin 1993; Mesoudi et al. 2004; Richerson and Boyd 2005; Rogers and Ehrlich 2008). Thinking of culture as an evolutionary process is not without problems. Among them, especially intriguing is the fact that, given a constant or sufficiently slow-changing selective pressure, replicators should converge in the long run into a small number of highly adapted forms. However, just as an enormous number of genera and species live side by side in the biological world, so do cultural variants coexist in the cultural world. The paradox of the presence of a large biodiversity, resulting from apparently converging selective pressures, is resolved in...
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