Sunday, 22 January 2012

RationalWiki on memes

For those unfamiliar with it, RationalWiki covers a range of scientific and political topics, providing commentary on them.

They have a large Pseudoscience section. It is rather like a version of QuackWatch oriented towards scientific topics.

The site features articles on numerous "fringe" subjects such as cryonics - which apparently is never going to work - and Transhumanism - which they characterise as "people assuming that because it can be imagined, it must be possible".

They have a section on memetics. As might be expected, it is pretty awful.

They start by approvingly citing the "criticism" of memetics from semiotics. To quote from my response here:

The semiotics students are correct to say that memes are signs - provided we use the definition of the term "sign" from within semiotics - which is - pretty confusingly - different from the usual English usage of the term. However, they don't seems to have any kind of coherent case against memetics. It seems to be more that they would prefer to use the terminology of semiotics to describe memes - even though the evolutionary biologists got there decades before them, and have a far more relevant discipline behind them.
They cite the mostly-daft criticisms of Luis Benitez-Bribiesca - focussing particularly on the issue of whether cultural evolution features sufficiently-high copying fidelity to support cultural evolution. I give this criticism a few sentences here.

This has not been a viable criticism for decades now. The bibles and languages (and their associated phylomemies) prove conclusively that the critique is mistaken. Among serious students of cultural evolution apparently only Dan Sperber ever took this critique at all seriously.

They also have a brief section on memetics in their section about "Scientific mysticism". It is positioned in the midst of a rant about abuses of "selfish genes". This section on memes is pretty awful as well.

They complain that in the internet era few memes go extinct - apparently unwaware of the facts that much evolution merely involves changes in frequency of traits, and that plenty of data loss still goes on on a regular basis - as computer hard drives crash and people fail to save their work.

They repeat the daft objection that:

Thus, the high rate of "memetic mutation" should predict mostly evolutionary noise with little room for natural selection"
They say that:

Memetics ignores the evolved cognitive architecture of the human mind and other models of cultural evolution such as gene-culture co-evolution.
Really. Dawkins cited the work of a number of existing cultural evolution theorists in The Seflish Gene - and was plainly inspired by some of their work. Dennett and Blackmore cite the work of these other theorists too. Indeed, practically every memetics author I can think of since 1976 has done the same. Perhaps these folks should go and read my book on memetics - which clearly places memetics in the context of other theories of gene-culture [sic] co-evolution.

They finish by saying that memes provide:

an intuition pump built on circular reasoning that generates unfalsifiable nonsense that happens to sound very pretty.
It remains unfortunate that people get into such silly muddles over memetics. Many of those in the field of cultural evolution are doing a spectacularly poor job of helping with public understanding of their own field. More explanatory material targeted at laymen seems to be urgently needed.

The article goes on to say:

One of this cult's prophets, Ray Kurzweil, seems to almost willfully misunderstand biological evolution to posit technological "evolution" as its outgrowth.
Ray Kurzweil gets it - but the RationalWiki editors plainly don't have a clue what they are talking about in this case.

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