Sunday, 27 February 2011

Memory, Social Networks, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis - Videos

All the videos from the imitation and memes conferences:

Computational Memetics
Michael Best (Georgia Institute of Technology)

The Role of Memes in Cultural Evolution: memes if necessary, but not necessarily memes
Marion Blute (Sociology, University of Toronto)

Is a Handaxe a Meme
Michael Chazan (Anthropology, University of Toronto)

How Useful is Memetics to Evolutionary Archaeologies
Ethan Cochrane (Institute of Archaeology, University College London)

The Population Memetics of Bird Song
Alejandro Lynch

Rationality, Evolution, and the Meme Concept
Keith Stanovich (University of Toronto)

Symbiosis and the Leiden Definition of the Meme
George van Driem (Leiden University)

Is it Good to Share? The Parallel between Information Transfer and Horizontal Gene Transfer
Paul G. Higgs (Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University)

What is a meme? A functional definition
Robert Finkelstein (Robotic Technology Inc. and University of Maryland University College)

Social Networks Theory: Networked Lives and Meme Fields
Barry Wellman (Centre for Urban & Community Studies , University of Toronto)

The Social Structures of (Memetic) Diffusion
Bernie Hogan (Department of Sociology, University of Toronto)

Irresistible Changes in Languages: The Case of Italiese
Domenico Pietropaolo (Italian Studies, University of Toronto)

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and its Relevance to Meme Research
Morris Moscovitch (Psychology, University of Toronto)

Putting Memetic to the Test: The Case of Historical Trends in English Phonotactics
Nikolaus Ritt (Linguistics, University of Vienna)

What Makes Us Human?

What Makes Us Human? Copycats. The memes start 6 minutes in. Featuring Sue Blackmore:

The full documentary is available here:

Memetics discussion list archive

I've finally found the archives of the old memetics discussion list archive:



    The archives date from 1997 to 2000 and from 2000 to 2003.

  • Friday, 25 February 2011

    Memes and the origin of music

    A video lecture about the origins of music:

    Most of the bits about memes are in part 1 and the beginning of part 2. He dates The Selfish Gene to 1964, though - FAIL!

    Thursday, 24 February 2011

    Where Boyd and Richerson differ from memetics

    One common criticism of memetics is that it adds nothing new to other approaches. When quizzed about which other approaches are intended, the work of Boyd and Richerson often crops up.

    Richard Dawkins published on memes in 1976 - the same year that Boyd and Richerson first publlished on the topic. It seems a bit unfair to claim that memetics is duplicating their work.

    Critics who cite Boyd and Richerson may not realise how comprehensively their work validates the main points of memetics.

    I generally try to treat Boyd and Richerson as players on the same team as the meme enthusiasts. They at least recognise that culture evolves, coevolves with DNA, and can sometimes be harmful - the basics of memetics. They even explicitly endorse the "meme's eye view" (Not By Genes Alone, pages 153-154). Apparently they even drafted their "Not By Genes Alone" using "meme" terminology through-out - and then substituted in "cultural variant" before publication.

    However, they occasionally make misguided critiques of memetics - and are sometimes cited by its critics (e.g. see here and here) - so I thought I would take a moment to explain one of the places where I think these researchers go wrong. Apart from rejecting the term "meme", and advocating use of their own "cultural variant" terminology, that is.

    Please note: most of the rest of this article is now out of date. See the note at the bottom for details.

    In 2001, Boyd and Richerson authored a paper entitled: "Culture is Part of Human Biology Why the Superorganic Concept Serves the Human Sciences Badly" where they lay out their philosophy:

    Culture is a part of human biology, as much a part as bipedal locomotion or thick enamel on our molars.

    Boyd and Richerson's identification of human culture as part of human biology seems to be a significant mistake to me.

    In memetics, memes form their own cultural organisms, which do not interbreed with humans. Their relationships with humans are thus more like like those of symbiotic gut bacteria, pathogenic agents, or domesticated animals.

    If you look at what is inherited, culture is not closely related to humans. Nor do cultural inheritance closely track the inheritance patterns of the human genome. Cultural entities are often mobile independently of humans, they can die largely independently of their human hosts and they engage in sexual recombination largely independently of humans. Their genotypes are often found outside the human body. Their phenotypes are often found outside the human body. I think these factors mean that modelling cultural entities as separate organisms makes sense - whereas modelling them as some kind of extension of humans does not.

    Memetics allows classification of cultural entities into different sexual species - with limited meme flow between them. For example, Cobol programs tend to have sex with other Cobol programs while BASIC programs tend to have sex with other BASIC programs. However, if Cobol and BASIC are considered to be "part of human biology", it makes little sense to classify them into separate species.

    Also, cultural adaptations benefit meme reproduction - while being deleterious to the human hosts involved. That makes a lot of sense under the interpretation that cultural entites represent separate critters that behave much like mutualists and pathogens - and very little sense under Boyd and Richerson's interpretation.

    Similarly, memes compete with similar types of memes for some niches and not other ones - which makes sense in the context of an ecology containing different species occupying different niches - and not much sense otherwise.

    Later in the same paper, they write:

    The term coevolution classically derives from the interacting evolution of pairs of species like predators and prey, diseases and hosts, and mutualists. In the present case we imagine that our culture is something like a symbiont. It lives in the same body as our genes, but has a different life cycle and thus responds somewhat differently to evolutionary forces.

    This is much better. Memes only spend some of their time in human bodies, and have what is usually a totally different life cycle, though. Not human: other. Also, there are many visitors with different reproductive cycles. Culture is not really a symbiont, though - it is a more like a collection of symbionts - mutualists and pathogens.

    I think it is important to understand that we are dealing with a range of quite different "species" - some of which may not have our best interests at heart. Once memes have constructed computers, robots and nanotechnology, and are no longer so dependent on us for their reproduction, viewing them as "part of human biology" will become more obviously a mistake.

    To make clear that Boyd and Richerson have not changed their mind about this in the mean time, here is a 2010 article, where Richerson again promotes the case that we should: "think of culture as part of human biology". This would be misleading IMO. Humans are also in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with lettuces - but it would be confusing to claim that lettuces are part of human biology.

    What would be OK is the idea that the capacity for supporting culture is part of human biology. If they were saying that, there would be no debate. However, that isn't what they actually wrote.

    Update: I found some clarification about this issue in "The Origin and Evolution of Cultures", page. 4. They say:
    Culture is part of human biology. The capacities that allow us to acquire culture are evolved components of human psychology, and the contents of cultures are deeply intertwined with many aspects of our biology.
    The headline still seems misleading to me - but the subsequent clarification seems fine - I have no objection to that. This places Boyd and Richerson even closer to memetics than I had previously thought.

    See also:

    Most of the other remaining differences now appear to be differences in emphasis.

    Memetics links

    To supplement my page of memetics references, I have put together a page of memetics links.

    As with the references, this will probably expand gradually over the coming months.

    These pages are now both accessible in the sidebar ->.

    Wednesday, 23 February 2011

    Kate Distin - Cultural Evolution

    Kate Distin has a new book out: "Cultural Evolution".

    This apparently covers similar ground to her 2005 book, "", though with a different emphasis.

    One interesting part for me was in the appendix - where she explained why she was not using the memetics terminology:

    She talks about the torrent of confusions and misunderstandings surrounding memetics:

    So although, in a way, I feel that it is a shame not to make use of memetic shorthand when talking about cultural evolution, I feel more strongly that it is no longer worth taking the risk of obscuring my words behind the mists of hostility or unwanted implications.
    She concludes with:

    For now, at least even though in my view memetics has established that it is quite theoretically respectable, in practice it is not yet quite socially acceptable.
    My attittude is a bit different. The meme terminology is a great shorthand - as indicated by its overwhelming popular adoption - and I am not about to give it up because it is linked to confusing beliefs in some people's minds. Having a convenient shorthand for "cultural genes" helps more than it hinders.

    Update 2015 - I read the book - though I seem to have neglected to review it. I found it tough going and dry - and I disagreed with the author quite a lot.

    Tuesday, 22 February 2011

    Darwinian Creativity and Memetics by Maria Kronfeldner

    There's a new book on memetics coming out later this year...

    The book I am talking about is Darwinian Creativity and Memetics - by Maria Kronfeldner.

    Unfortunately, it is anti. A whole book bashing memetics!

    It is probably a cut-down version of her her 2007 thesis - which has the exact same title, but which seems to have more pages. I have already penned a criticism of that, which reads as follows:

    The longest criticism of memetics I have seen comes from Maria Kronfeldner (2007). Her critique runs to over 300 pages! In her final summary (p.290) she writes:

    Given that there is no independence of meme diffusion from human individuals, the explanatory units of selection analogy ends up in an explanatory dilemma: Either the analogy is heuristically trivial, because it loses its main claim, namely that memetics presents an alternative to the traditional explanation, which is given in terms of properties and interests of humans, or the explanatory units of selection analogy is trivial in explanatory terms, because it is tautological – it does not explain anything, since it merely states that those memes that have a high actual survival are those memes that have a high propensity for survival, without explaining where this high fitness emerges from.

    Genetics doesn't explain much about the fitness of genes either - it is more about the nuts and bolts of how genes combine. However, if you look a little further afield, to evolution and ecology, there is a wealth of information about why some genes are fitter than others.

    It is much the same with memes - that isn't really the domain of memetics, but we really do have lots of information about how and why some ideas spread, and others do not. Ideas vary in their truth, how memorable they are, how short they are, whether they activate humour, desire, fear or boredom in those exposed to them - and so on.

    We don't know everything about why meme fitnesses vary - but we don't know everything about how gene fitnesses vary either.

    As for the whole: "survival of the fittest is a tautology" business - that is a tired fallacy, which we should not be hearing about in modern times.

    To avoid the charge of tautology, the term "fitness" in this phrase should be read as meaning "expected fittness", calculated from morphology, and other traits.

    Seasoned biologists tend to be aware of this rebuttal - partly since the idea that survival of the fittest is a tautology is a common creationist taunt - but apparently some philosophers do not.

    The standard rebuttal is on my page about the topic.

    Update 2012-02-02: Arran Gare - a sympathetic reviewer - uses their review of the book to bash memetics - and then propose their own naive variant on it.

    Towards better sharing

    Facebook seems to have dramatically ramped up the extent to which people share links with each other over the internet.

    Of course, people shared links with each other before Facebook - but not with quite the same frequency. Facebook gives automatic thumbnail images, descriptive text and titles to links quicker than ever before - and the extent to which people share links appears to me to have skyrocketed.

    Facebook's "like" button was another overdue innovation - working along similar lines.

    Of course all this sharing is pretty good for the memes that are being shared. They are more numerous and more viral as a result.

    Could things be further improved? Yes!

    • Image handling is still very primitive. It should not make users press left and right buttons to preview possible images, but rather display them in a gallery. Images should be flippable, mirrorable, editable, and there should be "add your own image" and use shrunken page view options.

    • Sucking in the first few lines of text could be improved on too.

    The presentation of the results could also be greatly improved, with better filtering, sorting and search options.

    Facilitating the sharing of links is a significant contribution to the planet's collective intelligence.

    Facebook viruses

    Many will remember the Microsoft Word viruses. These spread on floppy discs using macros - which were initially turned on by default. Incredibly writing a simple word processing document could then spread an electronic virus along with the text of the message.

    These days, Facebook has turned into another virus-infected system, where unwanted viruses spread easily along with intended messages.

    The following video explains how to disinfect your profile, once it has been infected:

    Here's a link explaining the workings of one of the recent scams.

    Saturday, 19 February 2011

    Tim Tyler - Memetics - Internet meme edition

    The fourth prototype cover for my 2011 "Memetics" book.

    This is the "internet meme" edition.

    For the earlier prototypes see:

  • Memetics cover - "Baby head" prototype

  • Cultural evolution cover - prototype

  • Memetics cover - "Tree" prototype

  • Tim Tyler - Memetics - 3rd prototype book cover

    The third prototype cover for my 2011 "Memetics" book.

    This one has "idea" lightbulbs clustered around a child's head in a manner that resembles sperm clustered around an egg.

    It is intended to symbolise the competition between ideas for limited mental resources. I've been using images like this one to symbolise memetics for quite a while, now.

    For earlier versions of this image, see here and here.

    For the earlier prototypes see:

  • Memetics cover - "Internet meme" prototype

  • Cultural evolution cover - "knot" prototype

  • Memetics cover - "Tree" prototype

  • Wednesday, 9 February 2011

    Rachel Haywire on "the death of memetics"

    Rachel Haywire recently wrote:
    It seems like everyone on the Internet acts like a 14 year old troll. Can I haz my culture back? I don’t think that lolcats are funny. They might as well symbolize the death of memetics. The fittest memes are parody macros. Can we say cyber-idiocracy?
    It is true that the things popularly known as "memes" are not exactly what Richard Dawkins visualised - but I don't think we should be that gloomy. Memes have finally found their home on the internet - and as a result, references to memes are increasing in frequency all over the planet. The popular triumph of the term has got to be a good thing for the health of memetics in the long term - I figure. Many marketers and advertisers will trace the term back to its roots, and get turned on to the topic that way.