Friday, 20 April 2012

Tim Tyler: Aunger, Darwinizing Culture (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a review of this book:

Darwinizing Culture - The Status of Memetics as a Science. Edited by Robert Aunger.

The book arose out of a Memetics Conference which was held at Kings College, Cambridge, in June 1999. It was published in the year 2000. This was before the heyday of memetics, which came a few years later. The book presents a unique snapshot of the state of memetics from that era.

There's an "Introduction" and "Conclusion" by Robert Aunger and then various other chapters - with the advocates coming first, and the critics coming last.

Susan Blackmore's chapter "The memes' eye view" updates and responds to criticism of her 1999 book The Meme Machine. It's great material - though I don't approve of Sue's emphasis on imitation.

The late David Hull's chapter is titled: "Taking memetics seriously: Memetics will be what we make it". David chastises Blackmore for her narrow, imitation-based memetics. He ponders extending memetics to cover all learning. The chapter features David wearing his "philosopher of science" hat, and taking a look at the chances for memetics. I was especially pleased to see Hull discusssing cultural kin selection. He says:

One final example of similar processes operating in biological and memetic change is kin selection.
...and then goes on to say...

In science, scientists also distinguish between kin and nonkin, but the relevant genealogy is conceptual. The issue is not who holds similar ideas but who is conceptually connected to whom. The best way to increase the likelihood that you will be a successful scientist is to work under a successful scientist.
It's good stuff.

Then we have Henry Plotkin on "Culture and psychological mechanisms". Plotkin takes a psychologist's perspective on the topic. He also disapproves of Blackmore's narrow imitation-based memetics. He discusses the definition of culture. It's a short chapter.

Then Rosaria Conte has a chapter titled: "Memes through (social) minds". This chapter is heavier going. Rosaria discusses multi-agent systems, social simulations and their links with memetics. It's a long chapter. The best bit for me was the extension of the trio of "Fidelity, Fecundity and Longevity" to include other factors - one she calls "Adjustability" - which is to do with the ability to adapt. That's an interesting idea.

Much of the rest of the book is more critical of memetics. I'll use most of the rest of this review to respond to some of these criticisms.

Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee contributed a chapter titled "The evolution of the meme". That mostly presented their idea of niche construction - which I think is a great idea with a dubious name.

They did present one criticism of memetics. They say:

In spite of an explicit analogy between memes and viruses (Dawkins 1976), memetics as a discipline has tended to concentrate almost exclusively on ‘infectiousness’ as the factor most responsible for why memes spread. However, the success of a virus depends not only on its infectiousness, but also on the susceptibility of its hosts, and on whether the social environment promotes contact between hosts (Ewald 1994). Based on our evolutionary perspective, we suggest that the same three factors may determine the success of memes.
I'm pretty sure that this is their idea - and not the fault of memetics. Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (from 1976) described memes as varying in fidelity, fecundity and longevity. Fecundity corresponds to Laland and Odling-Smee's "infectiousness" - but that isn't the only factor that affects meme spread - Dawkins himself listed some other ones - namely fidelity and longevity

The idea that the "infectiousness" of a meme is entirely the property of the meme itself - and doesn't depend on the memetic immune system of its hosts or the frequency of interactions between them seems too daft and ridiculous to be anything other than a straw man to me. No wonder the idea is presented without being supported by any references.

Laland and Odling-Smee finish with:

This work, and numerous other studies, simply would not have been possible without the assumption that culture could be broken down into discrete units, akin to memes. There already exists a respectable, and well-established, formal theory of memetics, in the form of cultural evolutionary and gene-culture coevolutionary theory (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985; Feldman and Laland 1996). We recommend that meme enthusiasts exploit it.

That seems fair enough. However, that work has some hangovers associated with it that memetics could well do without - but sure the memetics folk should join forces with the academics rather than squabbling too much with them. The academics need to cut out their sniping at memes too, though!

A sympathetic interpretation of memetics is not particularly difficult to find. If people are incapable of finding such an interpretation, then they should consider trying harder - or working in some other field.

The next chapter is titled: "Memes: Universal acid or a better mousetrap?" by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson.

The "universal acid" of the title is from Dennett's 1995 book. To explain their title, they conclude "Memes are not a universal acid, but population thinking is a better mousetrap."

Dennett originally said it was Darwinism - not memes - that was the "universal acid". It isn't clear why Boyd and Richerson have substuted the term "memes" into this thesis before criticising it.

Darwinism as a "universal acid" that eats into everything is a bit of a marketing idea - in my opinion. By contrast, population thinking is all very well - but it doesn't really play the same marketing role.

In the chapter, Boyd and Richerson summarise their own ideas about how the organic and cultural realms coevolve. This material is good. However, then they lay into memes. Their critique strikes me as being incompetent. They say:

In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins (1982) argues that the cumulative evolution of complex adaptations requires what he calls replicators, things in the physical world that produce copies of themselves, and have the following three additional properties:
  • Fidelity. The copying must be sufficiently accurate that even after a long chain of copies the replicator remains almost unchanged.
  • Fecundity. At least some varieties of the replicator must be capable of generating more than one copy of themselves.
  • Longevity. Replicators must survive long enough to affect their own rate of replication.
I don't think Dawkins said that. Nowhere in the The Extended Phenotype does Dawkins make that argument. Instead he says:

This, then, is our candidate replicator. But a candidate should be regarded as an actual replicator only if it possesses some minimum degree of longevity/fecundity/fidelity (there may be trade-offs among the three).
At the time, Boyd and Richerson avoided easy refutation by failing to provide a very specific reference for what they claimed Dawkins said. Nobody had the patience to trawl through the whole of The Extended Phenotype to verify that this argument was not included. However, now I think that what they wrote can be identified as being not something that Dawkins actually claimed or wrote.

The next chapter is by Dan Sperber. It's called "An objection to the memetic approach to culture". Sperber has several fancy critiques of memes. He concludes by saying:

Memeticists have to give empirical evidence to support the claim that, in the micro-processes of cultural transmission, elements of culture inherit all or nearly all their relevant properties from other elements of culture that they replicate
However it isn't clear to me why he thinks that this is a claim of memetics. Both organic and cultural copying can have practically any degree of fidelity - if exposed to mutagens. It all just seems like a ridiculous straw man to me.

Sperber asks:

If, as I believe, this is not even remotely the case, what remains of the memetic programme?
The answer is, of course: most of Darwinism - namely: population memetics, symbiosis, epidemiology, parasitism, mutualism, immunity, recombination, kin selection, kin competition and group selection - among other things.

Next is Adam Kuper's chapter: "If memes are the answer, what is the question?".

Adam Kuper's chapter is not great. To me, he comes across as a pissed-off anthropologist. He concludes with some criticisms:

I do not believe that memes help us. To begin with, the analogy between memes and genes is fanciful and flawed.
That criticism seems pretty vague. The idea is more that both "memes" and "genes" represent pieces of heritible information that participate in adaptive Darwinian evolution - not that there is some sort of "analogy" between them.

Adam continues:

Second, if memes are really what we would normally call ideas (and, perhaps, techniques), then it is surely evident that ideas and techniques cannot be treated as isolated, independent traits.
Uh huh? So can genes be treated as "isolated, independent traits"? I would say that genes interact during development. So, why expect to treat memes as "isolated, independent traits" if genes do not represent "isolated, independent traits"? It appears that this isn't so much a criticism as the author's own personal muddle.

Adam then says:

Third, ideas and innovations are transmitted and transmuted in ways that are very different from the transmission of genes.
It's true that some memes are transmitted through the air in the form of light rays or vibrations, while modern genes are mostly confined to nucleic acids - but so what? Darwinism just talks about inheritance, without going into implementation details too much. The details of how heritable information is transmitted and transmuted is all part of life's rich tapestry - not some sort of objection to applying Darwinian principles in the first place.

I think Adam needs to get with the program.

Lastly there's Maurice Bloch's chapter "A well-disposed social anthropologist's problem with memes".

Maurice Bloch identifies much of memetics as basic anthropology. Then he goes on to offer some criticisms. He doesn't think culture can be "atomised". He writes:

Is the practice of finishing the main rounds of rituals during the rainy season because the ancestors have so ordained and because the harvest can only take place when the crops are dry, is it a part of the memeplex about the weather, or the religion memeplex or the naive physics memeplex, or the social memeplex? Or is it that all these things link up into one gigantic memeplex? The answer to these questions can only be totally arbitrary. In reality, culture simply does not normally divide up into naturally discernible bits.
There are several issues here. One is whether you can break culture up into discrete bits. What can be divided up into discrete bits is cultural information. Information can be divided up into discrete bits - as can be clearly seen by the way so much of it it has migrated onto the discrete medium of the internet. Hopefully now, the internet clearly illustrates how cultural information can be divided up into discrete bits whose frequencies can be measured.

Then there's the issue of of whether there are "natural break lines" in cultural information - like there are on bars of chocolate - which make it more likely to divite at certain points. Natural break points can often be identified by the frequency at which actual breaks take place during transmission processes. So, for example, quotations often start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. Music, movies, art and computer programs also have natural break points. Culture does normally divide up into naturally discernible "bits". However, I don't think it always does that. There are probably even pieces of culture that have a roughly equal chance of being divided at any point.

However, the whole issue of natural break points strikes me as being a bit of a red herring. Evolution is based on heredity - and we have a science of heredity - namely: genetics. Heredity is not dependant on heritable information having natural break points. So, I see no reason why the science of cultural heredity - namely memetics - should insist on there being natural break points either. For example, you don't need natural break points to be able to perform meme frequency analysis. There the experimenter decides what sequences they are interested in looking at.

In summary, culture is full of natural break points. There may be some areas where they don't exist, but: so what? If there were no natural break points, and cultural transmission processes broke heritable information up entirely at random, memetics would be OK with that situation, most of its models would be unchanged, and the concept of a "meme" would still be a useful one.

Bloch also raises the issue that memes can overlap. However genes can overlap too. I don't see this as being a big deal.

Bloch then turns to what he calls "cultural consistency" - saying:

the transmission of culture is not a matter of passing on ‘bits of culture’ as though they were a rugby ball being thrown from player to player. Nothing is passed on; rather, a communication link is established which then requires an act of re-creation on the part of the receiver. This means that, even if we grant that what was communicated was a distinct unit at the time of communication, the recreation it stimulates transforms totally this original stimulus and integrates it into a different mental universe so that it loses its identity and specificity. In sum, the culture of an individual, or of a group, is not a collection of bits, traits, or memes, acquired from here and there, any more than a squirrel is a collection of hazelnuts.
I think this is all a misunderstanding. If memes are pieces of cultural information, then cultural information can be divided into memes - just as a matter of definition. Bloch emphasises that cultural information is "digested". Certainly some information is commonly lost during the process of transmission - but we can see that some information is not lost during transmission - the parts that contribute to cumulative cultural evolution. Those bits are more like the squirrel's genes than the squirrel's diet - since they are preserved intact down the generations. Bloch exaggerates the impact of the "digestion" process. Empirically, assimilation of culture does leave some things largely intact from one generation to the next.

Bloch says that culture:

is not a library of propositions or memes. This type of argument is principally intended as a criticism of American cultural anthropology, which (as we saw) was itself a criticism of diffusionism. But clearly it also applies to the simple diffusionist idea that culture is made up of ‘bits of information’ that spread unproblematically by ‘transmission’, where transmission is understood as a unitary type of phenomenon. British anthropologists, including myself, would argue that knowledge is extremely complex, of many different kinds, and impossible to locate, as though it were of a single type.
Information can represent complex structures of different kinds. Memes are just bits of cultural information - so have no problem representing complex information of many different kinds. As for knowledge being "impossible to locate", that reckons without the fMRI machines of the neuromarketers. They put people into scanners and then examine how their brains respond to meme exposure. The idea that memes are "impossible to locate" is one of the many criticisms of memetics that progress is gradually pushing into the dustbin of history.

Lastly one of my favourie bits from Bloch:

Of course, memeticists will want to argue that they are saying more than the diffusionists ever did and cannot therefore be dismissed in the same way. They 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 succeeded 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.
In this passage, Bloch adopts the position of a "trait denialist" - which strikes me as a bizarre position. Of course there are cultural traits.

Bloch started off the chapter by emphasizing the similarities between memetics and conventional anthropology. However, in this passage he agrees that memetics is radical and new. If culture really is a type of symbiotic relationship with entities with inheritance not based on DNA, then that's a big deal for the social sciences, for evolutionary biology and for biology.

These days, a number of leading scientists in the field support the symbiosis perspective. Fopr example, we have Peter Richerson saying:

I think it is near to undeniable that cultural variants are sometimes selected to become selfish pathogens along the lines that Dawkins suggested. Since some cultural variants can spread rapidly among people, as in the case of fads, they rather resemble the life cycle of a viral or bacterial pathogen.
Viral videos and viral marketing are not just a way of speaking - these types of phenomenon demand models based on symbiology. So, in this passage, Bloch is wrong, but he is eloquently wrong, clearly expressing the influence of memetics on the old paradigm which it displaces.

I haven't commented on Robert Aunger's "Introduction" or "Conclusion". I don't much like those parts of the book, so I'll just keep quiet about them.

That's enough review for now. The book provides a stimulating snapshot of the state of memetics from the year 1999. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history and development of the field.


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