Philosophy of Cognition: Topic12

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A Brief Intro[edit]

In Topic 11 we have discussed the idea that the evolution of cognition has something to deal with group selection, meaning that cognition might have evolved as a group level adaptation. However, as we have seen, groups cannot count as unit of evolution. That is to say, cognition can indeed be benefiting at a group level, but its evolution cannot be counted as an adaptation at a group level, as groups don’t display all the main ingredients characterizing evolution as descent with modification.

However, group selection points out that culture has a specific relation with cognition. That is, the evolution of cognition has something to deal with the very fact that humans are basically cultural beings. In a way we might say that we wouldn’t display sophisticated cognitive abilities without culture.

Following this line of thought, Richard Dawkins claimed that culture is a new and emerging system of transmission completely different from the genetic one, which is having a great impact on human evolution. Culture is not just a byproduct of genetic evolution, but an evolving system in itself, whose replicators are not genes, but what Dawkins called “memes”. Memes are basically ideas that can be replicated and then spread in our culture causing us to adopt certain behaviors rather than others.

The idea of meme is extremely fascinating, and to certain extent makes sense. Ideas can drastically modify our behavior. They might even be considered like viruses causing an organism to make maladaptive decisions. But the question is: does culture really evolve? Can we really apply the same logic of evolution to culture? Here again we should bring to mind the main ingredients of evolution as descent with modification, that is, competition, variation, heredity, multiplication. Like in the case of group selection, culture certainly exhibits competition and variation. Cultures compete and they are different from each other. Culture also displays heredity: ideas can be passed on from generation to generation. However, it doesn’t display multiplication. There is no means for producing one idea from another so that the latter is identical to the former.


Describe and analyze a case in which ideas can be considered like viruses.


What is a meme? Make an example.

What does the theory of meme help us explain that other theories don't help us explain?

Compulsory readings[edit]

R. Dawkins, Memes: the new replicators. in Id., The Selfish Gene. Available at:

Recommended readings[edit]

R. Brodie (2009), Virus of the Mind: The Revolutionary New Science of the Meme and How It Can Help You,