Monday, 5 March 2012

Memetics: alleged irrelevance

This critic says that he is "putting the nails in the coffin" of memetics.

However, his main complaint is that memetics isn't original. He says it is reinventing a basic wheel, and that memes are just "ideas", "words" or "concepts".

He has a couple of follow-up videos on the topic here and here.

I posted some messages in the comments to try and straighten things out - a few of which are below:


On the difference between memes and ideas:

"Ideas" and "concepts" are different from "memes" - at least as these terms are usually defined. Memes are usually defined as being socially-transmitted entities - while ideas and concepts can be private.
On the virtues of using the term "meme":

The other main virtue of using the term "meme" (rather than "word", "idea" or "concept") is that it explicitly suggests the link to genes, biology and evolution. That is good - if you want to discuss things in that context (e.g. memetic drift, memetic engineering, etc).

Modern usage of the term "meme" reflects the links to biology and epidemiology - in that highly spreadable aspects of culture are the ones that tend to get described as being "memes" most frequently.

On whether memetics really was obvious at the time:

It isn't obvious that culture evolves along Darwinian lines. Serious scientific study of Darwinian cultural evolution barely began until the 1970s. Apart from "The Selfish Gene" there weren't really any serious books on the topic until the 1980s (see the "Memetics Timeline" for more detials). It is easy to claim that memetics is obvious - with hindsight - but you do then need to explain why it was that scientists after Darwin didn't cotton on to the idea for a hundred years.
On the competition over the term "meme".

Also, perhaps check out the "meme synonyms" article online. There were many other previous attempts to find a word to refer to a small chunk of human culture. They underwent a process of cultural competition and selection. Now, the term "meme" now appears to have pretty comprehensively won. The idea was not a new one at the time, though.
On the idea that Nietzsche had similar ideas before memetics.

I see that there is a book titled: "Nietzsche's New Darwinism". One reviewer says: "Nietzsche's perspectival metaethics not so much as a rejection of natural selection, but an addition to natural selection of social selection and self-selection by those powerful enough to do it. In the former sense, Nietzsche may be a forerunner of modern notions of memetics or gene-culture coevolution". The knitting together of Nietzsche and memetics appears to have already begun.
On how the "cultural symbionts" of memetics differed from other historical concepts that were similar:

It is true that the idea of "symbiotic cultural organisms" is part of ancient folklore - in the form of posessions and exorcisms - but those folk didn't express their ideas scientifically, or generalize them, to all of human culture. It is also true that this idea is present in Cloak (1975) and Auger (1952) - but Dawkins (1976) popularised it.
On what new things memetics offered:

Memetics introduced novel (and useful) terminology, the idea of symbiotic cultural organisms (akin to viruses), the idea of "replicators" and it emphasised the applicability of Darwinian evolution to culture. The "replicator" idea has caused much confusion, but its other introductions remain true and valuable.

Concluding remarks

It's rather nice to have some modern critics saying that memetics is obvious. That's the kind of criticism I can get along with!

A more common complaint is that memetics is wrong. For instance, here is Maurice Bloch (2005):

[Memeticists] will bring up the originality of thinking of the evolution of culture from 'the memes' point of view'. And, of course, they are right, because if they had been able to argue that there were such things as memes, this would have been a fascinating new perspective on human history. The point is, however, that they have not succeded in arguing convincingly - any more than the diffusionists had before them when talking of 'traits' that there are such things in the world as memes. And so, talk of invasion by the 'body snatchers', to use Dennett's delightful phrase, is an idea as intriguing, as frightening and as likely as invasion by little green men from Mars.
Perhaps we can put the "memetics is wrong" folk and the "memetics is obvious" folk together in a field and let them duke it out among themselves for a while - as an inexpensive method of whittling down their numbers a little.

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