Thursday, 1 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Are memes like parasites?

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 compares memes to viruses.

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 these critics. Pinker expressed a number of objections to memetics in a 2009 Harvard lecture. Here we will look at his claim that a viral interpretation of memetics can't be right - because words lack adaptations to evade the host immune system. Here's Steven:

[Steven Pinker]

OK, so to clear some basic things up first of all:

In memetics, memes are like genes. They are cultural genes. That is why the term "meme" is similar to the term "gene".

However, there are things which resemble viruses in memetics. Just as with organic viruses, a memetic virus is typically composed of a whole bunch of memes and some other components which make up its phenotype.

Cultural parasites are not an "yet another emendation of the analogy between cultural and biological evolution" but rather, simply a consequence of the relationship between those two things.

OK - now back to Steven's objections:

[Steven Pinker]

So: words are not much like parasites.

In this segment, Pinker seems to be some way off-base to me. The ideas he is criticising are some pretty strange ones - and are certainly nothing like my own views. Memetics allows for symbiotes that are mutualists, parasites or commensalists. There is no "parasites-only" version of memetics. Most individual words would be classified as memetic mutualists - rather than memetic parasites - since they benefit the host by helping them to communicate - and that explains why we have language.

However, if you look at word combinations, then there are both mutualist and parasitic entities are to be found - and then we can consider objections to do with parasites.

Here's one example of a mutualist sentence:

The square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

That's the Pythagorean theorem, and knowledge of it is probably usually benificial to its host.

An example of a more parasitic sentence is:

There's an invisible sky daddy who loves you, knows everything you do, and can save your immortal soul from damnation - so, the most important thing you can do in your life is to warn other people about how to avoid the eternal hellfire, by bringing them into his loving embrace.

This idea tends to screw up its host by diverting resouces which would otherwise be devoted to host reproduction to the reproduction of the parasitic piece of text.

However, note that this idea is a complex one. Pinker's objection that a mere word lacks the adaptive complexity required to overcome the host's immune system doesn't have much force here - because this parasite obviously has considerable adapted complexity - expecially if you consider the whole memeplex that would typically surround it in the wild. Also, the sections which aim to deactivate the host's memune system are really rather obvious: with references to love, rescue, embracing and appeals to family ties.

The reason deleterious memeplexes can evade the host memune system is essentially much the same for memes as for organic parasites.

It is not as easy as all that to defend against "sheer words". Words arrange themselves into a vast number of possible sentences, and encoding which ones are good and which ones are bad in the genome - and covering all the world's languages - would involve storing an enormous quantity of information there - and there just isn't enough space.

Also: verbally-transmitted ideas evolve quickly - whereas the host memune system is slower to respond and adapt - and it has to cope with a very large number of possible attackers, which represents a considerable burden on it.

Lastly, in the case of transmitted memes confronting a host memune system, there is a twist that does not apply to organic immune systems, which again hampers its ability to fully defend its host. Organic immune systems just reject anything alien. However, memes are - on average - beneficial - and letting the good ones through while rejecting the bad ones is a very difficult problem. If we knew in advance which ideas were the good ones, then we wouldn't need to rely on 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 using heuristics about who to copy from - and inevitably some bad memes 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 memune defenses - since that would stop lots of good ideas from reaching us too.


Pinker's entire critique may be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an example of what I believe is a highly contagious, parasitic meme.
    "It's your fault I yelled at the baby/hit you/got so angry I lost control! If only you'd behave, I wouldn't have to do these things!"
    This is only one form of a possibly deadly set of ideas that lead to violent behavior (specifically, domestic abuse) on the part of the host. It is well known that victims of domestic abuse are much more likely to eventually display the same violent patterns than are non-victims.