Culture as a virus

"In the early 1970s, both E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins noticed that the flow of ideas in a culture exhibited similar patterns to the flow of genes in a species"

"Dawkins' response was to assume a hypothetical unit of culture called the meme, though he also made its problems clear—with genetic material, perfect replication is the norm, and mutations rare. With culture, it is the opposite – events are misremembered and then misdescribed, quotes are mangled, even jokes (pure meme) vary from telling to telling.

However, the gene/meme comparison remained, for a generation, an evocative idea of not much analytic utility. Dan Sperber (...) cracked this problem. In (...) 'Explaining Culture', he outlined a theory of culture as the residue of the epidemic spread of ideas. In this model, there is no meme, no unit of culture separate from the blooming, buzzing confusion of transactions. Instead, all cultural transmission can be reduced to one of two types: making a mental representation public, or internalizing a mental version of a public presentation. As Sperber puts it, "Culture is the precipitate of cognition and communication in a human population."

This is what is so powerful about Sperber's idea: culture is a giant, asynchronous network of replication, ideas turning into expressions which turn into other, related ideas

clay shirky, this explains everything / brainpickings