Cultural Niche and Education

Photo by Bindaas Madhavi (
Photo by Bindaas Madhavi (

One of the things that interested me in the study of culture by use of evolutionary models, was the concept of “niche construction”. I still think this concept offers possibilities to imagine how education should be done.

After having read both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on meme theory, I wasn’t convinced that memes could fully explain the complex relation between culture and the human species. In their view, culture parasitizes on the human brain, much like fungus parasitizes on an ant brain. In short, culture determines how humans behave, how they think, what they value.

For anyone involved in education, this seems a rather strange way to conceive of culture. After all, teaching children and young adults about language, mathematics, history, physics, and so on, is not about pouring knowledge into empty brains. It’s about enabling young human beings to develop themselves, as a person.

One of the hallmarks of a good education is when those youngsters show critical, creative thinking. When a child can mimic a teacher to produce a drawing of a flower, that teacher will be satisfied with the progress the child has made. But a teacher who doesn’t want to see a child developing its own style, its own approach to drawing, a teacher who doesn’t hope to see the child climbing the ladder of mimicking, just to kick it away, isn’t a real teacher.

Memetic theory can not grasp this. As far as I understand it, memetic theory states a one-way relationship between humans and culture, with culture being the dominant partner.

Niche construction posits a feed-back relation between organisms and their environment, with the organisms having as much influence on their environment as vice versa. When we assume that culture actually is the human environment, this theory suggests a feed-back relation between humans and culture.

That would allow for humans having an influence on culture. The choices humans make, the new combinations of existing elements humans make, the creative ideas they have: they all influence the way culture evolves.

I like the idea of a classroom as a “cultural niche”, where children and young adults learn to live in a cultural environment, but, foremost, where they learn to change that environment in ways their teachers couldn’t imagine.


4 thoughts on “Cultural Niche and Education

  1. I think both Dennett or Dawkins would in fact endorse your view on pedagogy completely. No reason to drag meme theory in here. Meme theory is a simple, yet powerful concept that draws a parallel between genetic evolution and cultural evolution. New powerful, succesful memes are almost always the result of original, creative thinking. Dennett nor Dawkins would ever contest that.

  2. I disagree with your comment, in particular on Dennett. I think he applied meme theory on religion (having discussed it earlier in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) in a way that does not allow much room for original, creative thinking. Moreover, I don’t drag meme theory anywhere, nor do I consider it to be the most adequate theory to describe cultural evolution. I merely tried to convey in this blogpost that other theories, like niche construction, multi-level selection, etc. seem to be more promising.

    1. Well, without clear citation or reference, it is hard to exactly pinpoint what you are getting at. The religious meme is indeed a very strong one, considering they originate from a 2000 year old book. The dogmatic interpretation of biblic texts as is common in religious circles indeed is an example of a meme leaving verry little room for original, creative thinking. Is it in that context that you refer to Dennett?

      1. Regarding references: This is a blogpost, not an academic paper. But nonetheless, dear anonymous Sinussquare, if you follow the links provided in the blogpost, you will see examples of both Dawkins’ and Dennett’s use of meme theory.
        As for the dogmatic interpretation of bible texts: this is not so common as you presume, although e.g. Richard Dawkins does his best to keep this straw man alive. Dennett does not, in my view at least, make sufficient distinction between this kind of memes and others, in fact not really discussing any application of meme theory on e.g. the arts, or science. After having read e.g. “Darwinizing Culture” (, I think meme theory does indeed fail to capture the complexities of human culture. See also the discussion of meme theory by Laland and Brown in “Sense and Nonsense” (

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