What’s Cultural Genotype?



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A week ago I was at a workshop Rules as Genotypes in Cultural Evolution (check out the Focus Article by Elinor Ostrom that set the stage for the meeting). One major topic of discussion was what might be the cultural analog of genotype.

In biology phenotype is the observable traits and characteristics of an organism, including morphology, coloration, behavior, etc. Phenotypic traits are determined jointly by the organism’s environment and its genotype, or genetically encoded information. Multicellular organisms like us store genetic information in the DNA (although things are somewhat complicated by the possibility of epigenetic transmission of acquired traits).

The distinction between the phenotype and the genotype has been enormously productive in evolutionary biology, so folks studying human cultural evolution have proposed that we need to find cultural analogs of the genotype and phenotype. One such scheme that I find fairly coherent (I actually teach it in my class on cultural evolution) is the one formulated by Richerson and Boyd (see their Not By Genes Alone; Rob Boyd participated in the workshop and argued in favor of this view). Richerson and Boyd define culture very broadly, as socially transmitted information. The cultural phenotype is pretty clear – it is the behavioral traits of humans, understood broadly (includes collective behaviors such as dance and rituals; knowledge, philosophy, and science; tools, books, clothing, tattoos, domesticated animals, technology, etc). Unlike biological traits in most organisms, human behaviors are affected not only by genes and the environment, but also by culture. Because both genetic and cultural information is transmitted across generations, this theory is also known as the ‘dual inheritance theory.’

So what’s cultural genotype? Boyd and Richerson argue that humans had culture before there were any technological means, such as memory chips of computers or written books, to store cultural information. The only place where cultural information could be stored in prehistoric times was people’s brains. So cultural genotype is the information stored in human brains.

Fine so far, but other participants in the workshop had different views. Some objected to the idea that any information is ‘stored’ in the brain (I never figured out why, though). Others, like David Sloan Wilson, proposed very different views of cultural genotypes. Wilson, together with his graduate student Yasha Hartberg, argued that a sacred text can be thought of as a cultural genotype, because it “consists of many ‘genes’ in the form of stories, commandments, and other texts. A sacred text such as the Christian Bible is replicated with high fidelity and has a potent effect on behavior, which are two requirements of a cultural genotype.”

This view also sounds reasonable, but can cultural ‘genes’ be both neural circuits in the brain and words inked on a parchment? After all, biological genes come in only one variety, the DNA (let’s ignore viruses and prions for simplicity). This leads me to the question whether the whole idea of ‘cultural genotype’ is a useful concept.

After all, what gets transmitted is not the ‘cultural genotype,’ whatever that is, but the cultural phenotype. Dawkins’ phrase of memes jumping from brain to brain is a striking metaphor. On further thought, however, I think it is a silly, and certainly not a useful idea. We are not telepathic! The way cultural information is transmitted is by people observing the behaviors of others and then attempting to imitate them, with greater or lesser degree of success. We actually don’t even know whether the observer/learner encodes the cultural information with precisely the same configuration of neural circuits (if that’s how we store information in our brains) as the one in the brain of the person being imitated. (I believe that Richerson and Boyd made this point before me.) In fact, most likely the same behavior can be encoded by a multitude of very different circuitry configurations. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian, but the distinction between the genotype and phenotype is really useful only in a Mendelian framework.

So what really matters is the actual observed behaviors, not how they are encoded in brains. That’s a relief, because we really don’t know how information is stored in the human brain. As Rob Boyd stressed during the workshop, cultural evolution is currently in its pre-Mendelian phase. But I would argue that while it would certainly be interesting to know how brains work, this knowledge is rather academic for the scientific study of cultural evolution. Yes, we need to know about various biases affecting learning and transmission of cultural information, but psychologists are doing a pretty good job investigating such mechanisms experimentally. I am not against brain research, I am just saying that we don’t need to wait for new great insights from neuroscience to study cultural evolution productively.

In any case, in this day and age we have an alternative cultural genotype, whose physical characteristics are completely understood – digital information: books, technical manuals, audiotapes, videos, etc. Any human behaviors can be recorded and transmitted to others. You can now learn how to fix a leaky faucet or study an esoteric martial art on the Youtube.

The genotype/phenotype distinction is not a useful way to think about cultural evolution because cultural evolution is too different from genetic evolution. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian, while genetic evolution is Mendelian (but both are Darwinian). Cultural traits can be both discrete and continuous, while genetic traits are discrete. Cultural information is transmitted ‘asexually.’ Finally, in cultural evolution what ultimately matters is not what an individual person does, but what groups of people do.

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The split between memes and meme products is often important in understanding cultural evolution. For example, cakes are meme products while recipes are memes. A developmental process transforms memes into meme products, which themselves are rarely copied from.

It’s best to define memes as being composed of culturally-transmitted information. Meme products are everything else that is influenced by them.

Also, cultural information is transmitted both asexually and with recombination, much as it is in the organic realm. I don’t really understand the position that cultural transmission is asexual. Dawkins says in “The God Delusion” that “there is nothing obviously corresponding to chromosomes or loci or alleles or sexual recombination” for memes – but this is just wrong – memes have both loci and recombination. Recombination is clearly evident in phenomena such as portmanteaus. In my book on the topic I give the example of “television” and “evangelist” sexually recombining to produce “televangelist”.

David Deutsch writes that for culture: “There is no close cultural analogue of a species, or of an organism, or a cell, or of sexual or asexual reproduction.” He’s wrong about recombination, and wrong about organisms.

“Memotype” is a useful concept. To quote from my “Cultural Creatures” web page: “Organic creatures involve groups of genes that die at the same time and (mostly) reproduce at the same time. Similarly cultural creatures involve groups of memes that die at the same time and (mostly) reproduce at the same time.” There’s more details about the issue on my “Cultural organisms” page.

The idea that you refer to – involving memes only existing inside brains and computers – is known as “internalism” in memetics. Most memeticists call themselves “externalists” (e.g. Dennett, Blackmore and myself are all externalists). Basically, internalism is an intuitively appealing – but unfortunate, misleading and unhelpful perspective.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the metaphor of memes “jumping from brain to brain” has a sympathetic interpretation which does not imply telepathy or the entity remaining identical before and after making the jump. If facing an unsympathetic or literal-minded audience, this could be spelled out.

Peter Turchin

There is no question that cultural variants recombine. A couple of years ago I was in Salt Lake City and went on the LDS Temple tour – it was a wonderful experience in cultural evolution. In particular, one could see the many antecedents of the Book of Mormon, and almost trace how they recombined in the minds of the LDS prophets.

But this is different from the transmission of genetic information in diploid organisms, in which the offspring gets precisely one half genes from the father, and one half from the mother. Plus, genes are organized in chromosomes. Cultural recombination is much more free-style and ‘promiscuous’ – a cultural trait can have many different parents. Once again, there are analogies, but it is not productive to push them too far.


There’s multi-way sex in animals too. The multiple matings of ant and bee queens can result in colonies having multiple parent colonies. Then there’s symbiotic organisms – like the Portugese Man’O’War – again an organism formed from many different parent organisms.

I don’t really see where chromosomes come in. Not all organisms divide their genes up into multiple chromosomes – and there are plenty of ways in which memes get divided up – multi-volume encyclopaedias are one example.

People seem to love to think of culture as “special” – and exaggerate the differences between cultural and organic evolution. Wilkins speculates that this is because people want to feel special – saying: “The greater the difference the more special we can all feel about ourselves.” However, perhaps another factor is at work amongst the theorists. Perhaps they want to be master of a new domain – and each piece of it which was mastered decades ago is seen as subtracting from their own legacy. The result has been an unfortunate failure to appreciate the similarities between cultural and organic evolution. IMO, students of the subject (all of us) can save much time and resources by properly appreciating the similarities and then avoiding reinventing the wheel.

Darwinism itself has been the biggest victim in this tragedy of human exceptionalism. Among Darwinism-aware researchers, symbiosis, cultural organisms, kin selection and kin competition have probably been the biggest failures.


Analog inheritance takes place in the organic realm – as well as the cultural domain. The idea that organic inheritance is digital dates back from the era when it was thought that nucleic acids mediated almost all organic inheritance. Now we have a different world – with methylation, prions, chromatin remodeling, orientations of cilia patches and stress all being inherited.

Of course it’s still possible to make the claim that genes are digital but memes are both analog and digital – but *only* if you have a very narrow conception of what a “gene” is which makes it unsuitable to act as a unit of heredity in genetics. Some people act as though they want to import the molecular biology definition of a gene into evolutionary theory – but evolutionary theory has long had its own notions about what genes are, and many of them make no mention of nucleic acids – e.g. see the work of G. C. Williams.

Peter Turchin

You are quite correct, and that is why I qualified my comments by mentioning epigenetic inheritance. Still, the DNA-based inheritance is 99% of where the action is. But in any case, we are in agreement that close analogies from molecular biology are not particularly productive in cultural evolution.


A good resource for the issue of what counts as “genotype” in organic and cultural evolution is G. C. William’s book: “Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges” (1992).

There’s a kind of summary here:


It identifies genes and genotypes as being essentially heritable information. That is a concept which is perfectly portable to cultural evolution.

G. C. Williams said (above): “I was also influenced by Dawkins’ “meme” concept, which refers to cultural information that influences people’s behavior. Memes, unlike genes, don’t have a single, archival kind of medium.”

Lesley Newson

I think that the genotype/phenotype distinction might make more sense when talking about small groups of nomadic foragers. Small groups would have relatively simple technology but even so we would expect the group to have more knowledge and expertise than they would be displaying at any one time. For example, if they exploit different habitats in the course of their migrations, the ecological knowledge and skills necessary to exploit the habitat they are currently in would be their phenotype. But the group would retain a body of cultural information which would not be used until and unless they migrated to one of their previous habitats. This latent body of knowledge could be considered analogous to the cultural genotype of the group.

Peter Turchin

Lesley, this is a good point. I believe what you are saying is that cultural knowledge can be separated from behavior (phenotype); it can be stored for future use. Actually, although this can happen with hunter-gatherers this separation is even more possible/common in literate and technological societies. Early modern sea-farers stored a lot of knowledge in ‘rutters’, and today there is a lot of knowledge on the Web that just sits there.

Rick Davies

My thoughts: Genotypes are almost by definition a representation which is relatively stable over time. So a written text is very stable relative to the interpretations that its various reader may have of it from day to day, year to year. If the phenotype is anywhere is in people’s reactions to the text, both the inner experience of it and their reported/and visible reactions to it

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