Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Memetics still misunderstood

One of the more interesting aspects of Sue Blackmore's latest piece on "Temes" in the New York Times blog is the comment section.

Not for the insightful comments - there didn't seem to be too many of those. Rather for the way commenters repeatedly slammed memetics and the whole idea of cultural evolution. For example:

If you want to coin a new term, that's fine; but just don't pretend it's an extension of evolutionary theory / natural selection; the constraints, characteristics, and initial conditions present in evolutionary theory vis-a-vis 'memetics,' are so different as to make a connection between the two inapplicable, not to mention empirically inappropriate.

When will these writers realize that analogy is not argument? One can draw an analogy between human brians and computers, between biological processes like evolution and internet. So what? These analogies neither explain nor predict anything.


Unfortunately the "meme" idea is based on an interesting analogy, not proper quantitative analysis. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to realise that it does not provide new insights into hitherto mysterious facts, but merely re-describes them in metaphorical terms. For example, the nature of the copying process, and above all of the supposed "mistakes", is not specified.

...and so on.

Sue has a follow-up piece there as well - and the comments are much the same.

Memetics seems central to understanding the position of humans in the natural world - and yet it is one of the most ignored, misunderstood, and maligned areas of science.

Some heads need banging together, I figure.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you Tim. Memetics seems to be so misunderstood and yet it is fundamental to understanding the evolution of cultures, ideas, beliefs, religion and science.

    I read a PhD thesis from the Sorbone in France on it and memetics is put down.

    I’m surprised at the naiveté of the arguments against it. It is as is even the experts don’t get it. Maybe it overwhelms the view of the self.