The Interwoven Conceptual Matrix of the Cultural Replicator

A commentary on 'Niche Construction, Biological Evolution and Cultural Change by Kevin N, Laland et al. to appear in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1999, 22, 577-660.

Liane Gabora
Center Leo Apostel, Brussels Free University (VUB)
Krijgskundestraat 33,
B-1160 Brussels, Belgium


ABSTRACT: The capacity for flexible niche construction increases suddenly and dramatically when discreet memories and sensorimotor associations become woven into an interconnected worldview. Ontogenetic learning is as vital to culture as social learning because it is the wellspring of cultural novelty. Human altruism may result from pressures exerted at the level of cultural, rather than biological replicators.


Laland et al. provide many interesting examples of the important evolutionary consequences of niche construction in both animal and humans. It should be pointed out that this topic is not new to artificial life, or cognitive science, or more qualitative approaches (though not under the name 'niche construction'), although it may be new within the tradition of the mathematical models of culture cited here. The advantages of precision and predictability conferred by these mathematical models is bought at the considerable price of sidestepping the distributed, relational processes through which memes are stored and evoked. The assumption that these processes can be swept under the rug is even less valid for culture than for biology (and the quick fix proposed in Note 5 will not solve the problem) because memes (unlike genes) are generated on the fly on a regular basis. Thinking is an ever-creative process; no two instantiations of a meme are ever the same. This paper neither builds on the mathematical work it cites, nor reaches beyond the limitations of this approach to address the highly contextual, strategically creative thought processes that underlie human niche construction. But it does draw attention to the topic, and argues convincingly that it be addressed seriously.

The authors assume that the capacity for niche construction, and culture in general, differs in animals and humans by degree only: "Modern culture did not suddenly emerge from some pre-cultural Hominid ancestor (Plotkin, 1996). The psychological processes and abilities that underlie culture have evolved over millions of years, and can often be found in rudimentary form in animals." (Pg. 15, Section 2.1.3) There is, however, evidence that a vast gulf separates the cognitive abilities of humans from other animals (Donald 1991, 1993). True, animals modify their environments in useful ways. The phenomenon is even more widespread; a river carves out an ever-wider river bed, which in turn 'gives it more room' to flow. Since niche construction is come by rather easily, it is probably not an ideal litmus test for the ability to engage in the abstract, relational thinking that generates the complex artifacts, languages, theories, stories, etc. comprising human culture. The authors view niche construction as the cornerstone of a new paradigm in evolutionary thought; I view it as one faucet of the increased behavioral contextuality conferred when disjoint memories and stimulus-response associations transform into an interconnected conceptual web, or worldview, such that related concepts are connected by way of abstractions (Gabora 1998). As I see it, the most promising new paradigm in evolutionary thinking is to take seriously the perspective that culture is a second evolutionary system.

Although the authors speak not of cultural evolution, but of cultural change, they do not address the process by which culture changes, just the process by which a change, once in existence, spreads to others. In fact, they equate culture with social learning, which they contrast with ontogenetic learning. But surely ontogenetic learning is as vital to culture as social learning. Ontogenetic learning is the wellspring of cultural variation; there has to be something worth transmitting before social learning will even manifest itself. (In 'Meme and Variations' (Gabora 1995) a computer model of cultural evolution, when I set the agents' ability to imitate to 1 and their ability to invent to 0, what happened is: nothing.) The more often a meme has been socially transmitted, the more time it has had to become adapted to a particular memetic niche, so the less likely it is to undergo further modification (and thus contribute to cultural novelty). Furthermore, social and ontogenetical learning are impossible to disentangle. For example, under Laland et al.'s scheme, if a child learns to peal a banana from it's mother, this counts as a cultural process. But if it learns to peal the banana from a cartoon monkey on TV, does this count as an ontogenetic process? What if it gets the idea by watching the petals of a flower unfold? Since the same meme results in all three cases, it seems useful to put them all in the category of cultural processes (with social and ontogenetic components of varying degrees).

Laland et al. explicitly support the notion of memes (p. 21, Note 4), yet explain behavior exclusively in terms of genetically-driven selection. If genetic replicators can have a huge impact on behavior, why not cultural replicators? The fact that new memes regularly take root and die within a single human generation suggests that selective pressures operating at the level of their bearers' survival are not the only selective pressures at play. Laland et al. suggest that in human altruism "it is not genes that are selected for, but rather groups of individuals expressing a particular culturally transmitted idea." (p. 18, Section 2.2) Isn't it simpler to posit that selection is taking place not at the level of groups of individuals, but at the level of memes themselves? Heylighen (1992) suggests that memes, like genes, exert pressure on individuals to behave altruistically toward others who share them (the equivalent of kin selection for memes). Intuitively this makes sense; we are more inclined to be nice to those who share our ideas than those who share our eye color or blood type. This more direct explanation of human altruism should at least be considered.

Despite these reservations, I believe the paper raises many provocative issues, and makes many very good points.



I would like to thank Francis Heylighen for comments and discussion, and acknowledge the support of the Center Leo Apostel and AWI Grant Caw96/54a of the Flemish Community.



Donald, M. (1991) Origins of the modern mind, Harvard University Press.

Donald, M. (1993) Precis of Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and

cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16: 737-791.

Gabora, L. (1995) Meme and Variations: A Computer Model of Cultural Evolution. In L. Nadel and D. L. Stein, editors, 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems, SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Lectures Volume VI, Addison-Wesley, Redwood City, CA.

Gabora, L. (1998) Autocatalytic closure in a cognitive system: A tentative scenario for the evolution of culture. Psycoloquy, 9:67.

Heylighen, F. (1992) Evolution, Selfishness and Cooperation (Part 1). Selfish Memes and the Evolution of Cooperation (Part 2). Journal of Ideas, 2:70-84.