Friday, 24 February 2012

Memes as the new phlogiston?!?

Timothy Taylor (no relation) is the author of the interesting book "The Artificial Ape". He penned an anti-meme diatribe in the Evolution 2.0 book - titled "The Problem of ‘Darwinizing’ Culture (or Memes as the New Phlogiston)".

It appears that the real Darwin wars continue <sigh>. There's at least one good thing in it. Timothy says:

Dawkins and others who support his meme idea believe the former: where the influence of the replicators of organic nature (genes) fades, units of culture (memes) take over, ostensibly to continue the pattern of Darwinian competition. That the first are conceptually directionless (albeit anthropomorphized as 'selfish') while the latter are clearly directed (if not always under direct control) does not appear to present any problems to supporters of the idea. The territory claimed as won seems immense, as it allows human nature to be tidied up without an additional explanatory paradigm.

Yes - that is the power of memetics - and cultural evolution - in a nutshell. Memetics enthusiasts do indeed think that directed mutations and intelligent design fit into Darwinian framework just fine. There's no rule in Darwinism that says that mutations have to be "conceptually directionless".

Memetics is just Universal Darwinism applied to the realm of ideas, concepts, habits - and the other aspects of human culture. Despite the continual moaning of naysayers, this is a perfectly legitimate enterprise with rock solid theoretical and empirical foundations and a long history.

Timothy proposes his own three-layer paradigm - and tries to make "a case for a realm of artifice with its own distinctive non-Darwinian generative processes."

Many other authors in the field (including myself) seem to think that most artifact evolution to date is best modelled as being "phenotypic" in nature, with the associated heritable material being mostly transmitted via human minds. Most also think that a Darwinian framework is the most appropriate foundation to use for moselling this situation. Timothy Taylor's position is thus an odd one.

It is true that we are gradually switching over to a realm in which information is inherited via artifacts - increasingly bypassing human minds in the process. Susan Blackmore has famously modelled this transition using her "techno-memes" (temes) terminology. Alternatively an externalist can equivalently simply model these as memes as well - of a slightly different kind - which deals fairly neatly with the problem of these proposed categories (brain memes and computer memes) blurring into each other when memes migrate between media. Essentially, memetics has this area pretty well covered. Susan Blackmore is the main proponent of a three-layer classification scheme within memetics. Her case has some problems - but if you really want to classify things this way, you can do so - the idea has at least some merit.

Timothy's other criticisms are not all easy to make sense of. At one point he claims that there is no definitive "swastika" meme - saying that its shape can be arrived at in various ways, it can be called different things and it can mean different things. I think that such a criticism bounces off the target. There's heritable information that evolves when swastikas are transmitted down the generations. Maybe there's no "definitive" haemoglobin gene either - because of all the variants out there - but: so what? Who ever said that genes or memes needed to exist in "definitive" forms in the first place. Sure, we talk about the "haemoglobin gene" and the "swastika meme" - but that doesn't mean that anyone actually thinks these things are crisp natural categories with no blurring at the edges. Genes and memes can both be duplicated and then gradually mutate out of all recognition. This criticism seems to be attacking a straw man - and it fails to properly identify anyone who holds the position it is criticising.

I didn't find too much of value in Timothy's effort here. He joins a long line of people who produce poor quality criticsms of memetics - apparently through failing to find a sympathetic interpretation of it - and then go on to promote their own pet ideas and terminology for cultural evolution. His ideas about symbiosis and baby slings were of much better quality.

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