How biological and cultural memes evolve | Interview with Dr. Marcus Feldman

We met with the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of Biological Sciences from Stanford University, Dr. Marcus Feldman, to talk about cultural evolution, whale communication, meme transmission and so much more. Enjoy!

How biological and cultural memes evolve | Interview with Dr. Marcus Feldman
"It's a matter of broadening the definition of transmission from the transmission through the genes to transmission of information and attitudes, behaviors via learning."” – Dr. Marcus Feldman

Leading biologist Dr. Marcus Feldman discusses cultural evolution, biological and cultural meme transmission, mathematics’ role in biology and anthropology, and whale communication. Co-director of the Center for Computational, Evolutionary, and Human Genomics and the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of Biological Sciences, and director of the Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies at Stanford University, Dr. Feldman talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:19Evolution of Cultures

Jed Macosko: Hi. This is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academicinfluence.com. Today we have a special guest, Professor Marc Feldman from Stanford University. And he’s been on this show before, and we would love to just ask you a few more questions.

Professor Feldman, most particularly, I was wondering about your work at Stanford. How is it that you first developed the theory of the evolution of cultures? Tell us a little bit about that first paper that you and your colleague wrote.

Marcus Feldman: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were things going on at Stanford and at Berkeley that most of your potential viewers probably are not familiar with, but Arthur Jensen had written an incendiary article in the Harvard Educational Review, basically saying that the reason that remedial education had failed was a problem with the genetics of the students.

This very notorious article, a long article that had in it a lot of eugenic thinking, a lot of thinking about races and the differences in abilities between the races.

At the same time, William Shockley, a Nobel prize winner and a faculty member at Stanford, was espousing overtly eugenic policies about sterilization of African-Americans and… Anyway, one of the thoughts that my colleague, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and I had was how to generate statistics of relationships between individuals that would not rely on genetics.

And that the heavy reliance, not just among these people, Shockley, Jensen and their followers, but actually most academics on the use of the statistic heritability and the notion that having a high heritability necessitated the importance of genetics in the trait whose heritability you are measuring, heritability being measured essentially by correlations between relatives.

So what we did is develop a very simple series of models where the correlation between relatives was in fact induced by the cultural similarity between the relatives and the transmission of cultural things. And the things don’t have to be very specific, but they can be ideas, behaviors, attitudes.

That led to the quantitative theory and eventually to our book in 1981 and to a very big research program, which to the extent that there is now a cultural evolution society with several hundred members around the world.

Jed: And so what you’re really doing is applying the same logic of gene evolution to the cultural pieces of information that are transmitted from ancestors to their descendants.

Is that what you’re doing?

Marcus: That’s right. It’s a matter of broadening the definition of transmission from the transmission through the genes to transmission of information and attitudes, behaviors via learning, not just from parent to offspring but from other individuals to anybody.

Jed: Very interesting.

Marcus: So it becomes a combination essentially of epidemiology and genetics.

Jed: Which are both fields rich with mathematicians, so you fit right in.

Marcus: That’s right.

04:36Epistatic interactions

Jed: And your work is often compared to Richard Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker” and the idea of memes, which he used in that book for one of the first times to describe things that get transmitted that are not genes.

So how do you feel about that and the differences?

Marcus: Yes. I think Dawkins oversimplified, and his followers, who used the term “meme” as though it could be pretty precisely defined in terms of like a virus. But it’s broader than that, and I think that the several people who follow Dawkins’ way of thinking and accept it have a rather simplistic view of evolution, and that the interactions between the different parts of the genome become much more complex in their dynamics than single entities one at a time.

So the interactions, which we call in the business, epistatic interactions, those things make the whole system become more like complex physics with particles interacting with one another, and the dynamical systems become much more complex in their trajectories over time.

06:10“Meme”

Jed: I can only imagine. And that’s a criticism of his understanding of gene and his followers of the simplistic idea of gene.

What about of the meme and how does that relate to cultural transmission?

His famous example in his book is “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a meme, a song that gets spread like wildfire. How does that meme idea relate to your cultural evolution ideas?

Marcus: Well, when we had the notion of entities that might be culturally transmitted, we didn’t know what to call them. In our first papers in 1972, when we submitted it, and then the later many papers, we didn’t have a name for those objects.

One scholar, Ed Wilson, called them cultured gems, which, of course, makes it sound very much as though they’re actually bits of genes and bits of culture in the same thing. And Dawkins called them memes.

"Among the anthropologists, meme is almost a dirty word because it means an oversimplification of what culture is."” – Dr. Marcus Feldman

They are, I guess, any entity that can be culturally transmitted could get a name like that. Among the anthropologists, meme is almost a dirty word because it means an oversimplification of what culture is.

And most anthropologists have difficulty in accepting the fact that you could write mathematical models for something cultural. They would prefer that you reserve the term culture for a gestalt, something that has many, many parts to it, that not all of them are being transmitted at the same time.

Not all of them even exist at the same time, but my feeling is that by making the proscription against that kind of modeling, you basically are proscribing anything predictive, anything really statistical. And I guess that is symptomatic of the dichotomy between what is commonly called cultural anthropology and the things like human behavioral science, that you have to be able to have some quantitation to make it into a rigorous field.

Jed: That makes sense. And so, what I hear you saying is that the word meme is actually applicable to the things that you study?

Marcus: It is, yeah.

08:53Cultural transmission and evolution

Jed: Yes. Wonderful, wonderful. Well, it’s interesting to hear you describe anthropologists as people who want to go with the gestalt, the holistic picture. We’ve interviewed a lot of anthropologists on this program.

I was wondering, are there anthropologists that you feel close to that get the idea of…

Marcus: Oh, yeah.

Jed: Using quantitative methods? Can you just talk about them a little bit in our last little bit here?

Marcus: Our book came out in 1981 on cultural transmission and evolution. In 1985, Boyd Richardson’s book came out, which also does mathematical modeling. So there is a school of people like them and their students.

And in addition, you have a large school based at St. Andrews University in Scotland with Andy Whiten and Kevin Leland who study these transmission of behaviors and attitudes, but they started in animals.

So they’re very interested in traditions in chimpanzees. And Hal Whitehead at Dalhousie studying the same idea in whales, which might be applicable to the whale sounds that they make, the communication of whales and the traditions that are developed over time in how they communicate with one another.

And then an interesting thing about that particular line of work that Whitehead does is you can also look at DNA in these animals and see what are the parallels. What’s parallel and what’s not parallel in the biological transmission and in the cultural transmission?

10:58Sign off

Jed: Fascinating. Well, thank you so much for coming on this show, Professor Feldman for the second time, and we really appreciate all the insights that you’ve given us. Thank you.

Marcus: You’re welcome. Anytime.