Wednesday 27 July 2011

Steven Pinker's objections to memetics

Here are Steven Pinker's objections to cultural evolution, as expressed in Harvard in 2009:

Steven Pinker was a pioneer of the first wave of the Darwinian revolution in social science - but is one of the scientists who are dragging their feet when it comes to the second wave of the revolution.

His objections are essentially the same as the ones he expressed in How The Mind Works:

  • Memetics has never taken off;

  • We don't have a science of memetics;

  • Mutations in evolution have to be "blind";

  • Cultural evolution has intelligent design, and so doesn't need evolution;

  • If cultural evolution depends on Lamarckian evolution, that gives it no power;

  • If memes are like parasites, words lack adaptations to defeat host immune systems - and so would be rejected;

Pinker is usually a smart cookie. It's rather a shame that he doesn't have a proper understanding of cultural evolution.

Pinker starts by saying:

I will raise a point of disagreement - and that is that I think that Dan's close analogy between biological and cultural evolution I think works at cross purposes to his justifiable celebration of the power of natural selection I think the idea that cultural evolution works by natural selection actually guts the theory of natural selection of what makes it most interesting.

That what makes natural selection so powerful in the case of biological evolution - Dan haas called it "the best idea that anyone ever had" - is exactly what makes it useless in understanding cultural evolution.


For one thing, just empirically, the idea of memetics, of a science of cultural change based on a close analogy with natural selection, it is just a fact: it's never taken off. It's thirty-five years old almost at this point. Every five years a paper appears that heralds the final development that we have all been waiting for of a science of memetics - and nothing ever happens.

Compare this to other sciences that have just flourished since 1976: neural networks, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology - there are conferences and journals and textbooks - we don't have a science of memetics - despite the constant promise that it is just around the corner - and I think that there is a good reason why we don't that there is something deeply flawed with the idea.


Design without a designer is essential for biological evolution - but it is peverse for cultural evolution: there really is a designer - the human brain - and there's nothing mystical or mysterious about saying that.
Dennett replies in part 9, part 10 and part 11. He calls the internet "the Drosophila of memetics" in part 9.

Most of Steve's objections from How The Mind Works are old, have been gone over before - and I go over many of them again in my forthcoming book.

One that I haven't seen before is the idea that words are not like parasites because they are simple and can't defend themselves against being rejected by the memetic immune system. Memeticists allow for symbiotes that are mutualists, parasites or commensalists. There is no "parasites-only" version of memetics. Most individual words would be memetic mutualists - rather than memetic parasites - benefiting their host by helping them to communicate.

The objection regarding how deleterious memes could evade the host's memetic immune system is essentially much the same for memes as for parasites. More complex memeplexes do have memetic immune system evasion capabilities - for example: "trust me" and "that's the devil talking". Also: memes evolve quickly - whereas the host's memetic immune system is slower to respond and adapt - and the host's memetic immune system has to cope with many possible attackers, a considerable burden on it.

Lastly, with meme transmission, there is a twist that does not apply to organic immune systems. Memes are - on average - beneficial. Letting the good ones through while rejecting the bad ones is a very difficult problem. If we knew which ideas were the good ones, we wouldn't need cultural transmission in the first place - we could just invent the good ideas. However, we don't know that - so we do the best we can, and inevitably some bad ideas get through the net. The price we pay for getting lots of good ideas culturally is that some bad ones make it past our defenses. However, that is better than beefing up our defenses - since that would stop lots of good ideas from reaching us too.

Update 2015-04-04:

In 2012, I replied on video to each point here.

Commenting on this post, Marella says:

I am afraid that Stephen Pinker’s (of whom I am a great fan) objections to mimetics show a lack of understanding of both evolution and mimetics.

That's about the size of it.

2023 update: the videos were toasted. Stephen was mainly commenting on a live lecture by Daniel Dennett. I think Daniel also got to reply to the criticisms.

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