This is a paper published by Nicolas Claidière, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Series B, Biological Sciences), in 2014 (here is the open access link to the full article).
The abstract states:
Darwin-inspired population thinking suggests approaching culture as a population of items of different types, whose relative frequencies may change over time. Three nested subtypes of populational models can be distinguished: evolutionary, selectional and replicative. Substantial progress has been made in the study of cultural evolution by modelling it within the selectional frame. This progress has involved idealizing away from phenomena that may be critical to an adequate understanding of culture and cultural evolution, particularly the constructive aspect of the mechanisms of cultural transmission. Taking these aspects into account, we describe cultural evolution in terms of cultural attraction, which is populational and evolutionary, but only selectional under certain circumstances. As such, in order to model cultural evolution, we must not simply adjust existing replicative or selectional models but we should rather generalize them, so that, just as replicator-based selection is one form that Darwinian selection can take, selection itself is one of several different forms that attraction can take. We present an elementary formalization of the idea of cultural attraction.
I actually disagree with the authors when they wish to treat cultural evolution as “Darwinian,” and in fact I think they unwittingly make a good argument that it is not, or at the least not in great part. Still, the excerpts below give an idea of a number of interesting notions discussed in the paper.
Of course, the analogy with biological evolution is not perfect. For example, variations in human cultural evolution are often intentionally produced in the pursuit of specific goals and hence are much less random than in the bio- logical case.
In this paper, we argue that there are important aspects of cultural evolution that do not fit even within a selectional model, and which are better explained and modelled as part of the broader population and evolutionary frames. Specifically, we argue that cultural evolution is best described in terms of a process called cultural attraction, which is populational and evolutionary, but only selectional under certain circumstances.
While some cultural items may indeed be propagated by imitation and other forms of copying, it is clear that a large number are not. In particular, many are also (re-)constructed. For example, a student taking notes in a lecture does not simply copy any spelling error that the lecturer happens to write down, but will in fact, in her own notes, correct the error and in doing so re-construct the correct spelling. As such, cultural propagation is partly preservative, but also partly (re-)constructive, to different degrees in each particular case. As such, it is not only a matter of inheritance, as is gener- ally the case for biology, but also of reconstruction. Whichever of these is more important in any given case is an empirical question, but either way, the direct analogy with biological evolution is considerably weakened by this fact.
How deep is the analogy between biological and cultural evolution? Memetics assumes that it is deep indeed; that the main relevant details of the biological case have direct equivalents in the cultural case, such that there is, for example, a cultural phenotype, which achieves a certain level of (inclusive) fitness, which will in turn determine the phenotype’s relative success in the population. Selectionist approaches loosen the analogy somewhat, moving from a replicative frame to the more general selectional frame. We have argued that the analogy should be loos ened further: cultural evolution is broadly Darwinian, in the sense that it is a population-level evolutionary phenomenon, but there is no empirical reason to think that it sits entirely or even in general within the selectional frame.
Another important disanalogy between biological and cultural evolution is the mechanisms by which traits propagate through a population. In biology, the mechanisms of transmission are in general only preservative. In the cultural case, however, the mechanisms of transmission are many and varied, and include both preservative and constructive sub-mechanisms.
Both attractors and the process of attraction are statistical notions. They do not denote a type of causal process or the outcome of a specific such process, and as such they do not pro- vide explanations of cultural phenomena. Rather, they provide relevant descriptions of what is to be explained. Attraction should instead be explained in terms of factors of attraction. Factors of attraction in an epidemiological population will generally be partitionable into two classes: relevant properties of the individual members of the host population (such as the psychological and biological susceptibilities of humans); and relevant properties of the environment of these individuals, including the demographic properties of the host population itself.
Darwinian selection leads to the maximization of inclusive fitness, and this explains the appearance of design in the natural world. Is there an analogous result for cultural attraction? As selection is a special case of attraction, design is possible and in some cases explicable in standard Darwinian terms. Having said that, such explanations will not apply generally, and may not even apply commonly.
A general, formal statement of what cultural attraction leads to does not presently exist, and we see the development of such a statement as a major goal for future modelling work.