Monday, 13 February 2012

Was there a misunderstanding of memes?

A few brief comments on this pretty long article:

The article applies memetics to the concept of a "meme", treats it as a cultural phenomenon - and critically traces the evolution of the concept. The article's abstract starts by saying:

When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.
The author seems to think that Dennett and Hofstadter "activated" the concept of a meme, by performing a cut-and-paste job on Dawkins' original article in their own 1981 publication (The Mind's Eye). He gives the example:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
However, that text appears in The Selfish Gene. Memes were pretty "active" from the beginning. To me, the author seems rather hung up on the issue of who first said that memes are "active". He says:

Yet we should be clear: a meme, if it does exist, cannot seek out prey. And it certainly cannot leap from one brain to another. The conceit of thinking in this way is just useful sometimes.
The "active" meme is classified by the author as a mistake that the author blames on Dennett and Hofstadter. I am sceptical. I don't see much of a problem here if the first place - memes are about as "active" as genes are - and I consider it to be "acceptable usage" to say that they propagate by "leaping from brain to brain". So: I don't think that was how things went down.

Aside from its technical problems, the article is a bit of a subtle "hatchet job" on memes. While some of the author's historical digging is welcome,the article's title calls memes "unscientific", it implicitly suggests that the meme may have died in 1999 - and the main thesis is that parts of memetics arose from misunderstandings propagated by Dennett and Hofstadter's editing of Richard Dawkins' original article. This thesis just seems to be mistaken to me.

It is also worth noting that Richard Dawkins didn't permanently abandon the meme - as the article seems to suggest. He returned many years later to actively defend the concept in his 2005 book "The God Delusion" - citing Richerson, Boyd, Shennan, Brodie, Distin, Aunger and Blackmore - and skewering meme critics. His promotion of memes has continued - with things like his Just For Hits video.

Update 2013-05-12: Burman, in what seems to be a form of digital vandalism, has apparently defaced the Wikipedia articles on Memetics, Memes and Richard Dawkins with promotional references to his misleading article.


  1. If you continue to apply the intentional stance, and are aware that you're doing so, then the meme is a perfectly acceptable simplification of a complex problem: we can "do work" by applying it, as in a kind of epidemiology of ideas. But when you give this up, which is what happened in 1999 when Blackmore dropped what had been implicit in Dennett's treatment, then the "meme" is reified as something other than a way of thinking. And that's not acceptable: the meme only jumps from brain to brain metaphorically. (There is no physical, causal structure that jumps.)

    This was the purpose of the paper: to show how the meaning changed from what Dawkins originally proposed, then trace that changing meaning through the various popularizations until the metaphor was permanently reified by Blackmore. Yes, the words were used by Dawkins. But they did not have the meaning that we read into them.

    That, ultimately, was the larger point: how should scientists communicate if what they say is so easily misunderstood? Dawkins is one of the best science writers out there, but we don't read what he wrote; we read what we think he wrote. And that then leads to the kinds of shifts in meaning that I traced.

  2. I couldn't find this immediately, but--once I did--I felt compelled to share it. It's from _The God Delusion_:

    "The central question for meme theory is whether there are units of cultural imitation which behave as true replicators, like genes. I am not saying that memes necessarily _are_ close analogues of genes, only that the more like genes they are, the better will meme theory work; and the purpose of this section is to _ask_ whether meme theory might work for the special case of religion." (p. 223)

    There's nothing wrong with this on its face. If you accept the premise, it is perfectly acceptable to pursue the question as a philosophical exercise.

    You are welcome to apply epidemiological methods to study the spread of ideas, or any other method you may choose, but only so long as you remember that you're adopting a particular stance when you do so. When you drop this stance, but don't drop the metaphor, you risk making mistakes. The active meme, when treated as a real thing, is one such mistake.

    This seems to me to have started when Hofstadter and Dennett excerpted material from _The Selfish Gene_ to create a new chapter for _The Mind's I_. (And, incidentally, you can't argue that this wasn't done: I provided a chart of where those excerpts came from.) Simply put: the context was lost, so the meaning changed. That then enabled what happened afterward.

    That, though, is the larger issue that I would like to encourage readers to engage. I have shown that the meaning of meme changed. But that's not ultimately what's most interesting. I want to encourage people to consider what that implies for their own writings. Then I'd like someone to help me with my problem: "How are we to write in a way that’s engaging, yet also ensures that we are understood in the way we intend?" (p. 100).

  3. Hi! Thanks for your responses. What is transmitted from brain to brain with memes is information. That has a physical representation. If you were looking for some kind of physical structure that remains intact, that is not something which was ever intended in the first place. To use "jump" or "leap" is a metaphor - but surely not a particularly confusing one - the idea of memes as physical structures that are literally "jumping" or "leaping" seems ridiculous. I supose there's the issue of exactly how you interpret the metaphor. Sympathetically, I would hope - at least that's how I recommend approaching popular science if it is being a little bit vague.

    It is perhaps worth thinking about how it could make sense for a meme to "seek out prey". Expanded, what that is intended to mean is that the meme has the effect of modifing the behaviour of its host so that it seeks contact with uninfected hosts. That is what the idea of a meme "seeking out prey" should be considered to be shorthand for. Then, as I hope you can see, the concept makes sense. Perhaps this sort of thing is confusing for people new to the field. However, that's really a different sort of complaint. Plenty of technical fields are opaque to outsiders before they become familiar with the way terminology is used by practitioners.

    I'm not sure what you mean about Blackmore dropping the "intentional stance". She has a whole chapter in her book called "Taking the meme's eye view", for instance. AFAICT, Blackmore, Dennett and I are on pretty much the same page as far as most these kinds of thing go.

  4. Information is also a metaphor. It is a way of simplifying complex phenomena so we can work on problems without fully understanding them. The philosophical challenge is to do that without being misled; the scientific challenge is to understand what the thing is that's being simplified.

    Such challenges can be addressed in different ways by adopting different stances: material, design, intentional, etc. We just need to remember that we've done this when we report our conclusions. And I think we ought to disclose our stances at the outset. For Blackmore to delay the discussion of Dennett's intentional stance until the end of her book (pp. 229-230), while taking advantage of the view it affords, produced a narrative that was more easily misunderstood than what had previously been published. Since her book was written specifically for general audiences, I think it needed to be more explicit about how the meme ought to be considered.

    The non-metaphorical meme wasn't her "fault," though. The process that turned the meme from a metaphor into an object began back in the 1980s.

    The meme became more active, and less metaphorical, over the period I examined. Experts will understand the rhetorical shortcuts, as Dennett pointed out in response to the reviewer in the New York Times who criticized _The Mind's I_. Other readers, including students, will be misled. (I have seen this in the courses that I teach and at academic conferences; that's partially what motivated me to write the essay.) If readers start with Blackmore, and don't read carefully, then they will be led to a very different conclusion than what Dawkins had originally proposed. This then leads them to read Dawkins in such a way as to reinforce the interpretation provided by Blackmore, but you can't do that. (In history, we call this "presentism.")

    Anyway, the upshot is this: you can't take the meme seriously as "a thing that jumps." You can only ask what insights are derived if we adopt a stance in which we accept jumping as a shortcut to get to the more interesting problem. Memes, in this sense, are a philosophical method; they aren't a scientific object.

  5. I don't mention "the intentional stance" at all in my own book on memes. Dennett's terminology is insufficiently self-explanatory for my taste in this case. However, both Blackmore and I do talk about the "meme's eye view". That is just the "gene's eye view" applied to memes - and Blackmore says that at the very start of chapter 4 of her book. IMO, explaining the "gene's eye view" in a lot of detail would take one away from the topic. The idea is to show how evolutionary ideas apply to the realm of human culture - not to bang on about well-known concepts from genetics.

    It is true that memes are not "objects" that can literally "jump". However, they can still be studied by science. They are like computer viruses in this respect. We can have a science that studies computer viruses, even though computer viruses are also informational entities and skip from one medium to the next - and so are not really "objects". Perhaps you also think that computer viruses aren't "scientific objects" either. Either way, I think that the "objecthood" that you seem to be concerned about is a big non-issue. Yes, people have said that memes "jump" and "leap" between brains - but surely they just meant that some information goes from one brain to the next. AFAICS, hardly anyone is confused about this. It should not be a big deal.

  6. I hear what you're saying: providing too much explanatory infrastructure takes you away from the point you want to make. That's the fundamental problem we face as writers: how much do we assume of our readers? That's where the misunderstandings are going to creep back in.

    In our conversations, Michael Schrage has suggested similar things about computer viruses. But I think, to make a fair comparison, you'd have to go beyond them to artificial life sims. Computer viruses were written by a human author, after all. And it would not be good to allow discussions about cultural evolution to become conflated with arguments about intelligent design.

    To be clear, though, I don't have a problem with computer viruses as scientific objects. We understand them better, at least insofar as the public recognizes them as artificial constructs, so calling them "viruses" doesn't cause the same confusion. It should be pointed out, however, that the means by which computer viruses infect computers is a completely different process than that involved in the spread of ideas. On this basis, and if the goal is to explain human culture, equating memes with computer viruses would seem to be unproductive. Unless, of course, you want to do it metaphorically....

    There is no such thing as a meme that one can study scientifically. Rather, there are phenomena that can be simplified by applying the meme as a metaphor.

    Do you want to study memes? Or do you want to study human culture and the processes by which it spreads, changes, and loops back to affect those who adopt it?

  7. I wasn't really "equating" memes with computer viruses - but there are many similarities - including many to do with how they spread. Both are generally intelligently designed. However one important difference is that computer viruses are generally more destructive to their hosts than most memes are. Many memes are positively beneficial.

    I can't say I see much of a problem problem with studying memes scientifically. Many memes have been studied scientifically. These include phenomena such as words, baby names, copycat terrorism, suicide, batik designs, marriage customs and cellphone designs.

    Personally, I'm more interested in memes than in culture. It is rather like asking a geneticist whether they are more interested in genes or in organisms. They are going to say "genes" - just because that's their particular area of study.

  8. Hi,

    I am from Spain so forgive my english.

    Excellent blog and excellent article.

    As far as I know the one who spoke at length of memes as "an object" which leapt from mind to mind was Robert Aunger in his book "The electric meme". He wrote about "instigator signals" (or something like that) which actually leapt from the emisor´s mind to the receptor´s mind (even through an intermediate artifact) and started the development of full memes there. He meant no metaphor here, and I think he was wrong.

    But the whole big misunderstanding comes from the effort to make memes look like genes. They are so different… but at the same time we know that both are, at least partly, subject to darwinian evolution. But the real problem is that we really think we know how genes work. And we don´t. We know DNA very well. We can even play with it. And we have found pieces of DNA which correlate to proteins and certain singular traits. Bravo.

    So we know the substratum of the genes. Good for us. But, do we really know a lot about the information contained in the substratum? I don´t think so. In fact, when Dawkins writes about genes in “The selfish gene” he doesn´t restrict his definition to the famous biology paradigm “One gene, one enzyme (protein)”. He defines a gene as a piece (or separate pieces) of DNA which correlates to a specific trait (simple or complex as a behaviour) not necessarily to the piece of DNA between two codons. So, when he speaks of a gene he refers mainly to a piece of information not a piece of the substratum.

    Were genes a scientific object before the discovery of DNA? May be not, but let´s remember that Schrödinger forsaw its existence in his lecture “What is life”.

    Of course it is true that we know much more about the substratum of the genetic information than about the substratum of the memetic information. Agreed. But let´s point out that the important thing here is information. Therefore, we could also consider genes (as information, not DNA) kind of a metaphor. As far as I´m concerned I don´t think information and communication are metaphors at all. Extremely complex concepts, yes.

    Now I ask you to join me in a little mind experiment. Let´s suppose that we live in a paralel world were genes could be intentionally and unintentionally shared “horizontally” among human individuals (both by giving them to someone else and adopting them from someone else). And let´s suppose that memes can only be transmitted vertically from parents to offspring.

    In my opinion in this paralel world genes would behave like memes and memes would behave mostly like genes. The only real difference would be in the nature of the variation (in Dawkins terms) which in the case of memes would be partly guided whereas in the case of genes it wouldn´t (but according to Dawkins the nature of variation is not important, as long as it behaves randomly “a posteriori”).

    Juan Alfonso del Busto

  9. The link between genes and memes is a key feature of memetics. It makes a lot of sense if you adopt an "informational" perspective on genes - and not much sense if you think that genes are necessarily made of DNA. The DNA-only "genes" of molecular biology fit in very badly with evolutionary theory. However, the idea of DNA genes is a well-established one - so we have the problem of people bringing the genes=DNA notion to memetics - and then failing to grasp the meme-gene relationship. The problem is not with the link between memes and genes - but with the link between genes and DNA.