Cultural Evolution with Daniel C. Dennett

Professor Daniel C. Dennett is possibly the preeminent philosopher of our day. He is a prolific author and lecturer, specializing in a wide range of topics from evolution and atheism to consciousness and free will. He has helped to change the role of a philosopher in the way that he has become both a student and expert on neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence, computer science, and philosophy of mind. Basically, if philosophy were a band then he would be the bass player. It was because of this reputation that I was excited to attend a series of lectures put on by The New College of The Humanities on cultural evolution by Daniel Dennett. He did not disappoint.

Cultural Evolution and Memes

I must admit that before this lecture series the science of cultural evolution is not something I knew a lot about. Unlike biological evolution, this was a new area for me. The two are, of course, linked and play together. Just how this is so, and how cultural evolution actually works, was the purpose of Dennett’s talks.

Culture’s change, adapt and grow – they evolve. This is not news to anyone however the process is not something that is constricted to pure history or story telling, as Dennett points out,everything is the way it is because it got that way,the change in culture does not escape the clutch of science. Whilst it most definitely is history and is a story, how did it become so?

Just like in biological evolution, cultural evolution, is a process that builds on itself. Biology has genes replicating, mutating and adapting, passing on vital processes to help the survival of the agent. Likewise, cultural evolution does a similar thing but instead of the information passed on in a biological manner through genes, it is passed on through memes. The term meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins and is one that Dennett particularly likes and utilizes. A quick Wiki search can offer you the simplest definition of a meme, it is“an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.” Notice the analogue to genes? Just like genes, memes respond to selective pressures in order to survive.

The way Dennett explained it is as follows. Biological evolution has throughout millions of years evolved our brains to the point of being able to have such high level of competences in thinking and creating. Imagine the brain for a second as a tool box, a box of such brilliant capabilities that dennetttcan adapt and change accordingly. Biology, specifically genetics have provided the blueprint, the recipe for use and implementation. The genome allows room for cultural diversion. This is where memes come in. To exemplify the point Dennett told us to think of a smartphone. It is wired in a certain way that allows it do a whole range of amazing functions, including being open to change and adaption through downloading apps. The phone has the capability to hold apps and this then changes the function of the phone, because the wires – the tool box- is clever enough to have the capabilities to implement this change. Just so the brain. The brain is wired, we then add an app – the meme- and the brain takes on extra and different functions that were not previously there. The meme/app has got into the framework and changed it. The brain has evolved both biologically and genetically to have the framework of being able to communicate. If you speak English you have the English Language App installed in your brain. If you speak Spanish as well then you have an English Language App and the Spanish Language App in your tool box. Your brain has changed as a result of the meme/app. The meme is more simply defined as information. Even now, by you reading this, I am passing on a meme from my brain into yours. This meme of information about cultural evolution will then compete with all the other memes/apps running around your brain to be remembered and utilized. This, as Dennett points out, is the bare essence of how culture works and changes, it is through memes of information within the brain. I will hand over for Dennett to explain it directly, for he is far more succinct than I could hope to be: “Brains in the community begin to be infected by a variety of these memes. Competition for time and space in these brains becomes more severe. The infected brains begin to take on a structure, as the memes that enter “learn” to cooperate on the task of turning a brain into a proper meme-nest, with lots of opportunities for entrance and exit (and hence replication). Meanwhile, any memes out there “looking for” hosts, will have to compete for available space therein. Just like germs.”

The story of memes does not end there though.

Memes work with but are not exclusive to biological evolution. It is still evolution but not necessarily for the sake of the hantost. Contrast this to genes where their survival is completely dependent on the host’s survival, the two are one and the same. Dennett argues that memes work in a different way, that memes should be looked at more from a parasite perspective rather than looking out for the best interests of the person. Consider the example of an ant climbing to the top of a stem of grass. The ant is in the field and seemingly from a survival perspective should not go near the top of the stem because it increases its chances of being eaten by a cow or sheep etc. Why does it do this? It does so because it has been hijacked by a parasite who in order to survive and replicate needs to be inside the digestive system of an animal such as a cow. So it has hijacked the ant and commandeered it for its own purpose of survival. In order to understand what we thought was the ant’s behavior we needed to ask the question of who benefits? Then upon closer inspection we see that it is the parasite that benefits. According to Dennett memes work in much the same way when we look at it from a who benefits? angle. But it is important to take note that these memes/replicators can be separated into three different groups:

Parasites – presence lowers the fitness of their host. (Dennett gave the example of religion. I tend to agree but that is for a whole other article in itself that will not be covered here.)

Commensals- presence is neutral.

Mutualists– presence enhances the fitness of both host and guest. (Example, arithmetic and writing.)

To reiterate- memes work like apps within the brain but they are also interested in replicating, they are cultural viruses that spread. They want to replicate in order to survive, and not necessarily so for the benefit of the host but rather for the benefit of the meme itself, the piece of information being passed on. Remember that memes work like genes in that they must compete with one another to survive and they build upon one another, upon previous ideas, this is quintessential evolution. For example music may have begun as a simple anxious reaction that involved tapping our legs but over the millennia has built on itself and spread into the widely brilliant and complex capability we have of music today. Music did not just all of a sudden appear in its current form – pieces of information evolved to get to how it is now. This is the same with any cultural progression, the spread and build upon of previous ideas got us to now.

This helps to explain why humans do such things that are not in direct line with the survival of the genes. Do you think that the most important thing in life is to have more grandchildren than everybody else? Unless you are completely dominated by your genes and not influenced by cultural memes you will not think this to be the primary purpose of life anymore. We have other goals as well, other pieces of information that are influencing us into what we want to achieve and do with our life. This is because of and the role of memes. Humans are no longer pinned to our genetic underpinnings. Dennett refutes the claim that our cultural values are on a genetic leash. He says, “I am suggesting that cultural possibility is less constrained than genetic possibility. The genes provide not a leash but a launching pad, from which you can get almost anywhere, by one devious route or another. It is precisely in order to explain the patterns in cultural evolution that are not strongly constrained by genetic forces that we need the memetic approach.”

Personal Reflections

13,000 years ago humans and their livestock took up just 0.2% of the world’s natural inhabitants, we now take up 98%. Dennett likens this explosion in culture, this huge movement in evolution of the meme-infected brain as akin to when evolution went from single-cell organisms to multi-cellular. It is that big of a deal. Because of culture, because of the conditions in the homo sapiens brain that allowed the implementation of memes to build up from scratch, to build upon one another and become what we are now, evolution of life on this planet has taken an extraordinary turn. I agree with Dennett, this new ability to be a culture rather than just a group of animals is massive in the history of life on Earth. Yes, we live in the world of animals – they are our cousins to be sure- but due to the complexity and competency of the human brain compounded with the infestation of memes we have changed and gained amazing new powers.

cultural evolution

For me, the way Dennett explains cultural evolution was what was missing in Richard Dawkins’ subversion theory. It explains so well why humans act the way we do. Whilst I am still undecided, and somewhat skeptical, as to how free we are from our genetic beginnings I wholeheartedly agree that we have moved away from our genes in huge ways, and the meme point of view goes a long way in explaining the how and why of humans behaving in ways that does not work for the elongation of our genes. However, I still have further questions about what specific conditions that led homo sapiens brains to acquiring memes and not other animals. Why has it not occurred elsewhere? I want to know more on why Dennett and others assert that the memes want to spread and want survival in as many hosts as possible. It definitely seems to be the case but is it simply conjecture or is it steeped in science? I am also interested in whether different attributes- such as rationality and logic – of human life are genetic, cultural or both? Many questions remain but also much progress has been made.

It seems that the major criticism to Dennett’s work on memes as cultural transmitters of information is that people want to believe that we are exceptionally brilliant for no other reason than our brilliance alone. They want to think that we came up with music because we just happen to be that good, that we are singularly picked out in the universe to be special. We are special of course, but not because of any supernatural trick. There is a story of how we got to be how we are today, and this story is a project for scientists just as much as it is for historians. It may turn out that Dennett  and his contemporary’s meme work is proven to be wrong one day, but it will only be substituted by another naturalist explanation if it is. And thus far I am yet to hear a better, more scientifically honest account of why home sapiens have got to where we are today, culturally and biologically.

If these ape-infected-brains are all that makes us human then I think that this is still truly a beautiful thing.



As well as lecture notes I also consulted various essays and books on cultural evolution by Daniel Dennett. If you would like the used material for further reading please do not hesitate to ask.

Craig Stanbury

About Craig Stanbury

Craig is the self-proclaimed book guru of the team. He has also studied politics and philosophy extensively while having a keen love for sport. He is from Australia but currently lives in England where you can normally find him in a cafe somewhere either reading quietly in a corner or animatedly discussing politics.

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