Misunderstandings within Memetics

Misunderstandings within Memetics

A transcript of the above talk

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and today I'll be discussing misconceptions about memetics arising from the ranks of its supporters.

Memetics is a field with a low barrier to entry - and seems to have attracted quite a number of armchair philosophers.

Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap. However, in the case of memetics, that can sometimes seem like an underestimate.

  • Memes only exist in brains

    The idea that memes necessarily exist in brains is fairly common.

    The idea dates back to Richard Dawkins - who stated that:

    A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain.

    The idea was championed by Robert Aunger in The Electric Meme.

    Unfortunately, the idea seems like a total dud to me.

    Other things besides brains can copy ideas. In particular, computers and machines can copy them.

    For me, the fact that Richard Dawkins inadvertently created such confusion around the definition of a meme at an early stage is one of the worst things about memetics.

    Whenever I use memetic terms I often find myself having to explain basic issues of definition - because of the confusion this issue has caused.

    This problem is pretty serious - but it was not quite bad enough to cause me to reject memetics in favour of some other terminology.

  • Memes must be transmitted via imitation

    This idea has been popularised by Susan Blackmore, in a 1998 paper entitled Imitation and the definition of a meme.

    Here she is ten years later, explaining the idea:

    [Susan Blackmore footage]

    I do not think this idea is a good one. To see why, consider the meme of a "reef knot". This meme can be passed on across five consecutive generations by drawing a diagram of a knot, then by knotting a rope, then by a textual description, then by making a computer model - and then by making a sculpture.

    However, in such a case, it is not the behaviour that is being copied - the behaviour associated with making a computer model of the knot is not remotely similar to the behaviour associated with writing a textual description of it.

    Since imitation is, by definition, copying of behaviour, the term cannot legitimately be applied to such cases.

    The copier may not even see who they are copying. Rather they may reconstruct the behaviour of tying a knot from the knot itself. Is it still imitation if you reconstruct a behaviour from an artefact produced by that behaviour? If so, it is hardly a conventional form of imitation.

    In my view, it is best to avoid any mention of imitation when defining memes - the idea is irrelevant and causes confusion. The copying of heritable information is the key underlying phenomenon - the details of how that copying is done is a side issue.

  • Memes do not exhibit Lamarckian inheritance

    I've previously cited criticisms of cultural evolution from Stephen Pinker and John Maynard-Smith - which claim that cultural evolution is flawed since it invokes the widely-discredited idea of Lamarckian inheritance.

    Some supporters of cultural evolution - notably David Hull, John Wilkins, and Gary Cziko have responded to these criticisms by saying, in effect, no, that's a misconception: cultural evolution exhibits Darwinian inheritance - not Lamarckian inheritance.

    In the hope of illuminating this controversy, let's consider an example:

    A factory produces dolls. The genotype associated with a doll is the doll-making-recipe in the factory. This recipe is sometimes modified to make new types of doll for different market segments. Sometimes lines of dolls are discontinued. The doll's phenotype is the manufactured doll itself.

    Now, imagine a customer modifies a doll's phenotype - by adding a blue hat - and sends it back to the company. The company likes the effect and modifies the doll-making-recipe so that line of dolls now has blue hats.

    Here it seems that this represents a case of inheritance of acquired characteristics - since a modification of the phenotype has wound up being reverse-engineered - and then duplicated in the descendants of that doll's genotype.

    How would Hull, Wilkins and Cziko interpret this example? None of these writers seems to have articuated their position clearly enough for me to be certain - but I think they would claim that the genotype is that which is copied from - so in this instance, the physical doll is acting as a genotype. It is the source of the blue hat idea - since it is what that was copied from. Therefore, this a case of genotypes inheriting from other genotypes - and that is ordinary Darwinian inheritance - not anything Lamarckian.

    I do not consider this perspective to be an acceptable one. The problem is that it defines Lamarckian inheritance out of existence, no matter where it is found.

    If, hypothetically, a giraffe strains its neck to reach food, and that trait is relaibly passed on to its offspring, the only way that can possibly have happened is if something copied the information pertaining to that trait into the giraffe's genome - so that too would then be a case of Darwinian inheritance - not Lamarckian inheritance.

    If not even the number one classical example of Lamarckian inheritance turns out to not in fact be Lamarckian under this model, one must suspect the term "Lamarckian" has been surreptitiously redefined.

  • Cultural evolution works via "Blind Variation and Selective Retention"

    "Blind Variation and Selective Retention" is a phrase introduced by Donald T. Campbell, as a way of describing what he saw as the fundamental principle underlying Darwinian evolution.

    However, in cultural evolution, variation is not "blind" - and retention of traits is sometimes poorly analogous to selection.

    To start with "blindness" Campbell wrote:

    In going beyond what is already known, one cannot but go blindly. If one can go wisely, this indicates already achieved wisdom of some general sort

    One might counter that if one has wisdom of some general sort that doesn't mean you have no need of further trials.

    Wisdom is a matter of degree. However blindness has strong boolean connotations - either you are blind or you have some degree of vision. These concepts make poor antonyms.

    Campbell is trying to make a useful point here - but the terminology is totally wrong. Variation in cultural evolution is not "blind". "Directed" might be slightly more accurate - but ultimately, I agree with David Hull - that it is better not to prefix the term "variation" with any adjective at all.

    What about "Selective Retention"? The problem is with the term "selective" - which strongly implies choice from a variety of presented alternatives. "Selection" is often a reasonable description of what happens in DNA-based evolution. However, the term is simply not general enough when generalising to all evolutionary processes. If you generate offspring genes by processes involving interpolatation, prediction, or extrapolation, they need not be " selections" of parent genes - and modelling such processes as selection plus mutation is vulgar.

    It's easy to trash someone else's slogan - but harder to create one yourself.

    So: do I have a better brief characterisation of the essence of evolutionary change?

    Yes I do. I propose: "Inherited Variation with Differential Reproductive Success".

  • Memes are usually maladaptive

    For some reason, Susan Blackmore very frequently paints memes as being maladaptive.

    She writes:

    Culture is not an adaptation and never was

    Here she is explaining how language is maladaptive:

    [Susan Blackmore footage]

    I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that language was maladaptive to our ancestors. I do not see where are the costs are supposed to have come from. Neither speaking nor gesturing was particularly expensive - while the benefits are likely to have been large, from the beginning.

    In my view, it is not being able to sing sweet love songs to your loved ones around the campfire that is likely to have been maladaptive.

    It's important to realize that memes are not always beneficial symbionts, but Sue seems to go too far the other way.

    Here ends my list of memetic misunderstandings. Enjoy!


    1. Maria E. Kronfeldner - Is cultural evolution Lamarckian?;
    2. Susan Blackmore - Imitation and the definition of a meme;
    3. Daniel C. Dennett - Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings;
    4. Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson - Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution;
    5. Anon - Criticism of Memetic Theory;

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