What’s in a meme? The role of replication in cultural evolution

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Boudry, Maarten
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Is replication in the cultural domain ubiquitous, rare, or non-existent? And how does this relate to that paradigmatic case of replication, the copying of DNA in living cells? Theorists of cultural evolution are divided on these issues. The most important objection to the replication model has been leveled by Dan Sperber and his colleagues. Cultural transmission, they argue, is almost always reconstructive and transformative, while ‘replication’ can be seen as a rare limiting case at most. Though Sperber’s critique is valuable, I argue that a purely informational and pragmatic approach to replication can clear up some confusion. By means of some thought experiments, I make a distinction between evocation and extraction of cultural information, and apply these concepts at different levels of abstraction. I conclude that, depending on our theoretical focus and our granularity of analysis, sometimes we can talk about replication in the cultural domain, even after having taken Sperber’s important points on board.