More Memetic Misunderstandings

More Memetic Misunderstandings

A transcript of the above talk

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and today I'll be discussing more popular misconceptions about memetics.

This particular video will mostly focus on the views of those who accept the concept of cultural evolution - but do not think that memetics is an appropriate model for it.

  • Lamarckian inheritance is a problem for memetics

    That inheritance in cultural evolution is Lamarckian was one of the points John Maynard-Smith raised. Here is Stephen Pinker on the subject:

    Stop being so literal-minded! respond the fans of cultural evolution. Of course cultural evolution is not an exact replica of the Darwinian version. In cultural evolution, the mutations are directed and the acquired characteristics are inherited. Lamarck, while being wrong about biological evolution, turned out to be right about cultural evolution.

    But this won't do. Lamarck, recall, was not just unlucky in his guess about life on this planet. As far as explaining complex design goes, his theory was, and is, a non-starter. It is mute about the beneficent force in the universe or all-knowing voice in the organism that bestows the useful mutations. And it's that force or voice that's doing all the creative work. To say that cultural evolution is Lamarckian is to confess that one has no idea how it works.

    Lamarckian inheritance - which I will take to refer to the inheritance of acqurired characteristics - did not offer an explanation of how acqurired traits found themselves in an organism's genome. However, that is not to say that no such explanation could ever be found.

    The reason we don't have Lamarckian inheritance in conjunction with DNA is that the central dogma of molecular biology effectively prevents the phenotype modifying the genotype. You can't "unbake" the developmental cake - and recover the genotype from a given phenotype.

    However, these days, the central dogma has broken down - with the advent of genetic engineering. These days, if a woman likes to dye her hair red, she can engineer a red-hair gene into her kids - if she wants to - by genetic manipulation.

    In the case of cultural evolution, intelligent agents can analyse how a genotype results in a phenotype. With such knowledge they are able to turn modifications of the phenotype into changes in the genotype.

    For example, if it is found that people prefer cakes if they are chopped into smaller pieces, then the recipe can be changed so that smaller cake tins are used.

    We are not ignorant about how Lamarckian inheritance works in cultural evolution. On the contrary, we can see, in considerable detail, exactly how it works.

  • Genes have a physical substrate: whereas memes don't exist - except in people's minds

    Memes do have a physical substrate. Any pattern of information must have some material instantiation. However, information can be stored in any physical medium. This is also true of genes. Genes exist in databases today - as well as being instantiated in coils of DNA.

    Here is Daniel Dennett on the issue:

    [Footage of Daniel Dennett]

  • The influence of design on ideas obliterates any inherited variation

    The QWERTY keyboard is a good example of the power of inheritance.

    If you ask multiple teams to solve the problem of designing a keyboard from scratch, each will produce a different key layout.

    Similarly with the NATO phonetic alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta - and so on. There are many other possible phonetic alphabets - the details of the one we have are the result of numerous random choices.

    In very many cases, there exist both random influences and a historical tradition. So: the influence of inheritance is often important.

  • Culturally-transmitted behaviours are not copied, they are reconstructed from observed behaviours

    This is Eva Jablonka's primary objection to memetics - as expressed in Evolution in Four Dimensions. It seems to me to be a misunderstanding about what it means to copy something.

    For example, Jablonka insists that to qualify as memetic transmission, copying should be "development-independent and learning-independent".

    Why these conditions are imposed is not clear to me. However, Jablonka's position is often lumped with that of Dan Sperber - which we will come to next.

  • The existence of predispositons to ideas shows that there is something other than copying going on

    Here is Dan Sperber:

    For memetics to be a reasonable research programme, it should be the case that copying, and differential success in causing the multiplication of copies, overwhelmingly plays the major role in shaping all or at least most of the contents of culture. Evolved domain-specific psychological dispositions, if there are any, should be at most a relatively minor factor that could be considered part of background conditions.

    That seems like a false dichotomy:

    In fact, psychological dispositions are one of the mechanisms by which differential success of memes is produced.

    Also, why is the possible role of mutations being neglected in Dan's characature of memetics? Selection is only half of evolution - the other half is the processes that generate variation. Selection can only choose between variants that are actually presented.

    Here is Dan Sperber again:

    Memeticists have to give empirical evidence to support the claim that, in the micro-processes of cultural transmission, elements of culture inherit all or nearly all their relevant properties from other elements of culture that they replicate.

    Now, exact and complete copying is quite common - e.g. if you are copying a passage of text. However Sperber wants to emphasize the cases where it does not happen. For example, where you laugh at the end of a joke to alert your audience to the fact that the punchline has been reached, and a hearer of that joke retells it, but adds their own laugh - rather than producing a detailed copy of yours.

    Memetics is concerned with what is inherited via copying. In the case of this example, what is copied is the idea of a laugh - rather than the details of all the ha-has and ho-hos. Things that are not copied, are not inherited, and do not go on to play a role in any resulting evolutionary process. That doesn't mean that they don't exist, or aren't important - just that their details do not persist as part of cultural inheritance.

    Similarly in genetic evolution, hairstyles are not passed on via DNA. That doesn't mean that they don't exist, or that they aren't important aspects of the phenotype. That genetics doesn't explain hairstyles does not invalidate genetics. Similarly that imitation doesn't explain the detailed ha-ha and ho-ho of a laugh does not invalidate memetics.

    Sperber's claim about what memeticists have to demonstrate is based on his own straw man version of memetics - as far as I can tell.

      Here ends my list of memetic misunderstandings. Enjoy!


      1. Daniel C. Dennett - Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings;
      2. Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson - Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution;
      3. Stephen Pinker - - - How The Mind Works;
      4. Dan Sperber - An objection to the memetic approach to culture;
      5. Bruce Edmonds - The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results;
      6. Anon - Criticism of Memetic Theory;
      7. Shalizi - Memes, and Related Ideas about the Evolution of Culture;

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