Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tim Tyler: Why is there no science of memetics?


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a video which responds to one of Steven Pinker's criticisms of memetics - the one where he asks: where is the science of memetics?

In my book on memetics - which is out now - I take a look at some of the critics and criticisms of memetics. Steven Pinker is one of the critics. Pinker expressed a number of objections to memetics in a 2009 Harvard lecture. Here we will look at his claim that there is no proper science of memetics - so over to Steven:

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.

It is, alas, true that, so far, there is no proper science of memetics. At the moment, nobody learns about memes in school, college or university - and practically nobody gets paid to lecture on the topic either. However, what we do have is a science of gene-culture coevolution. This is a branch of population genetics - and on close inspection, it is closely isomorphic to memetics - a fact which has previously pointed out by both by students of memetics (for example, Blackmore in her 2006 review of Not By Genes Alone and at regular intervals by Daniel Dennett) and by people from the population genetics side (for example, Kendal and Laland's 2000 paper Mathematical Models for Memetics). The academic material is essentially memetics without the "m"-word. It comprehensively validates most of the guts of memetics, and it has all of the features that Pinker is objecting to. The field has been researched by Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Kenichi Aoki, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Marcus Feldman, Joseph Henrich, Kevin Laland, Alex Mesoudi, Edward Wilson, Charles Lumsden - and now many others. It is true that this area is under-developed and not terribly widely known about, but it does at least exist and has produced a long series of academic papers on the topic dating back to the 1970s, which comprehensively document human cultural evolution. Pinker doesn't make any mention of this branch of science - and indeed it isn't clear from his presentation that he is aware of its existence.

Cultural evolution does appear to be slowly blossoming in academia. For instance, this year saw the publication of Alex Mesoudi's "Cultural Evolution" book, Kevin Laland's "Sense and Nonsense" book - which is all about the evolution of culture an has a whole section on gene-culture coevolution and another whole section on memetics. Kate Distin's "Cultural Evolution" book was published this year and there's my own book on the subject. James Gleick's book "The Information" had a big section on memes - as did David Deutsch's book "The Beginning of Infinity". Cultural evolution is also blooming in the world of marketing. Again if we just look at the books from this year, we have Dan Zarella's book "Zarrella's Hierarchy of Contagiousness" - which has a whole section on memes - and there's also Alex Bentley, Michael O’Brien and Mark Earls' book entitled: "I’ll Have What She’s Having". I don't pretend marketing manuals have much in the way of academic status - but there can surely be no doubt that these models are of substantial practical utility. Overall, this is not a huge amount of activity for one year - but it is a significant amount.

The biggest problem with cultural evolution being accepted within academia comes from the human sciences dragging their feet when it comes to embracing the basic principles of Darwinian evolution. There is an extremely long history in the human sciences of resistance to Darwinism. Even a few decades ago, within psychology there was ignorance of - and resistance to - Darwinian explanations. The Darwin enthusiasts were treated as alien invaders from another area of science and were given a hostile reception - as Pinker can probably testify. However, the resistance to Darwin from within the social sciences is much stronger. Cultural anthropology and history should be Darwinian sciences, but they are not. Instead they have mostly embraced the idea that their role is to observe and record, and that too much theory results in biases which act only to interfere with this aim. So, essentially, they are not really proper sciences at all. Social scientists have seen eugenics, social Darwinism and sociobiology. They know that anything related to Darwin is not any good, and will just give their field a bad name and make their colleagues hate them for dragging them into disrepute. So: Darwin gets trashed, and the truth be damned.

The problem is not entirely on the social scientist's side. A few evolutionary biologists are knocking on their door - but only a few. Most have no idea that social science has something to teach them about how evolution works. To them, humans are considered to be just another animal - and to think otherwise is "human exceptionalism" - an idea which has a long history of being wrong. So, they are mostly unaware of the revolution represented by cultural evolution.

The result of all this is that memetics has never taken off. That is a rather embarassing fact for intelligent humans - since it means that the scientists whose job it is to study human evolution have rather badly screwed up.

However, the correct response is not to look for holes in memetics. Memetics is just fine - and the criticisms of it are all a bunch of nonsense. Rather we should set to work constructing the science - since the world will be better off if it is built now rather than later.


Pinker's entire critique may be found here.

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