Virtual Symposia

Imitation, Memory and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis

How Useful is Memetics to Evolutionary Archaeologies

Ethan Cochrane


Click on the arrow to start the video. Video by Enam Huque

The archaeological record is a record of variation in the material results of human behavior where variants are both heritable and differentially persist. Evolutionary theory is therefore an appropriate framework to explain the archaeological record. Because evolutionary archaeologists explain archaeological variation with processes such as cultural transmission and selection, we might suspect the growing field of memetics to offer this research program valuable conceptual tools. Although a few archaeologists have explicitly attempted to integrate memetics with evolutionary archaeological theory, memetics is not required for a productive evolutionary archaeological research program. That memetics is not required is supported by two observations: 1) conclusions currently generated by evolutionary archaeologists are based on a unit of transmission similar to the meme concept, but developed independently over the last century in Americanist anthropology and archaeology; and 2) the empirical focus of explanation in evolutionary archaeology is the archaeological record. This record is similar in nature to the paleontological record and, as genetics is tangential to evaluating most paleontological conclusions, memetic theory is tangential to evaluating most conclusions that explain archaeological variation.

In this paper I develop these ideas by discussing them within the history of evolutionary explanations of the archaeological record, noting in particular the Americanist evolutionary archaeology program and the gene-culture co-evolutionary school that has perhaps drawn more scholars from outside the Americas. In the discussion I will pay particular attention to the construction and role of evolutionary theory in archaeological explanation and how archaeologists have used concepts such as replicators and interactors to evaluate selection, drift, and convergence as processes that may explain archaeological variation. I conclude that while memetics is not necessary for an evolutionary archaeology, memetics may be useful to evolutionary research programs that explain other empirical records.

Ethan E.Cochrane is Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Principal Investigator at the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, University College London. His latest publication is a chapter on “Migration and Cultural Transmission: investigating human movement as an explanation for Fijian ceramic change” in Cultural Transmission in Archaeology: Issues and Case Studies, Michael O’Brien, Ed. (2007).