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.

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