Sunday, 12 May 2013

Memetics resistance

One of the puzzles relating to memetics and cultural evolution is why humans have been so resistant to these ideas.

I've speculated before about why scientists have had so many conceptual problems in this area. However, it isn't just scientists that have been confused about this topic: memetics resistance is more widespread. Here are some of the speculations of others:

John Wilkins:

The failure of social evolutionists to properly apply a fully Darwinian model to culture until fairly recently is in part due to the prior expectations everybody has about what cultural agents are, and partly also to popular misunderstandings about Darwinian evolution; including, it has to be said, by many biologists. It is not through lack of intelligence, but through the complexity and sometimes vagueness of presentations of Darwinism that this occurs, for ‘Darwinism’ is itself an evolving tradition, as all scientific theories are in the end (Hull, 1988b).

Richard Brodie:

Our minds, it seems, are not well equipped to understand how they themselves work. You, in fact, may at first be very confused or distracted, or suddenly get tired, as you read this; you may even become angry just from reading these words. Although right now you may think that this statement is absurd, those feelings and symptoms are actually the defense mechanisms of mind viruses. They have evolved to be very protective of the parts of your mind that they’ve stolen, and any attempts to cleanse yourself of them can trigger reactions.

Keith Stanovich proposes a similar idea to Brodie in The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin. A chapter subheading from that book is:

The ultimate meme trick: Why your memes want you to hate the idea of memes

Stanovich argues that our memes don't "want" us to understand that a host can be taken over by ideas that treat their host as a tool for their own propagation. Stanovich argues that - if this is a common defense mechanism of multiple memeplexes, this effect might possibly lead to the observed memetics resistance.

These ideas from Brodie and Stanovich are stimulating - if rather difficult to test. Humans might also appear to be genetically predisposed to have a high opinion of themselves - and so might be naturally-resistant to seeing themselves as having parasite-ridden brains. If so, memeplexes seeking to amplify such sentiments may have had some existing material to work with.


  1. I often wondered why evangelists frowned upon my comparison between their spreading the word and [putative] syphilitic libido excess.

  2. No, memetics is resisted/ignored because it is pointless and tautological. It just points out that the spreading of culture can described as "survival of the fittest", something that becomes obvious the moment you think about it. Yes, the songs, religions, words etc. stick with us because they "fit" us or our particular culture. This is just obvious, but it tells us nothing about WHY they do so, which is what we want to know.

    WHY are certain movies popular and some not?
    WHY are fundamentalist religions on the rise in certain countries?
    WHY am I so attracted to this particular song (and not my friends)?

    You can either answer those questions with real answers or you can say - "it's a meme that wants to spread itself".

    Memetics does not help us predict "meme fitness". I know you address this in your critcism-section, and I quote you:

    "We do, in fact know some things about which memes are fitter than other ones. This area is part of what is often called "Applied Memetics" (an area which also includes memetic engineering). It seems to be one of the better studied areas of the field to me - simply because social media marketing and advertising departments need to be able to predict what spreads and what doesn't in order to be able to rapidly construct successful viral marketing media without the expense of doing a lot of testing. Popular writers and musicians know what people are likely to share. Scientists often have some idea about what scientific ideas are more likely to persist. "

    Yeah, but how are the writers and scientists aided by a potential science of memetics?
    The problem is that the moment you try to explain the "fitness" you end up in another field which is better served by experts in their own area. The question of why some scientific ideas persist has nothing to do with why some books or songs do. They are specific questions with separate answers depending on where and when they're asked. If you're aiming at writing a bestseller for teenagers you can either try to do some research on what the kids like these days, or trust your own creativity, but you're not gonna benefit from some "applied memetics". I'm sorry, but you're just not going to find any general all-purpose answers for questions like that.

    In the end there's really nothing left for memeticists to do than to provide metaphors and ugly ways to look at reality.

  3. That criticism is merely confused. The exact same criticism was famously leveled at organic evolution - e.g. by Popper. It was vacuous then, and it is equally vacuous now. Note that Popper reversed his position while he was still alive: "I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection, and I am glad to have the opportunity to make a recantation. My recantation may, I hope, contribute a little to the understanding of the status of natural selection." Popper learned from his mistake in this area - critics of memetics on this point need to take the exact same step.

    The charge that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology is by now a well known evolutionary fallacy. The refutation is well known: fittest means "expected fitness" - "not those who survive".

    It takes specialists in aerodynamics, mechanics and development to calculate the expected fitness of genes. That doesn't refute genetics, any more than the need for psychologists, historians and statisticians to calculate meme fitnesses refutes memetics. Memetics - like genetics - is all about the nuts and bolts of how mutations and recombination work. The task of calculating fitnesses It isn't really even within its job description. For that you need experts in development, ethology, cultural evolution - and other fields.

  4. Ah, so "calculating fitness" isn't the job of memetics, but it's about the "nuts and bolts of how mutations and recombinations work". But I think the problem is the same there - you wont find any general principles that work for such diverse phenomena as songs, words and political ideas.

    How is a song formed? Well, this just depends. The musician might try to say something about his life. Or he might just try to make a catchy beat. Completely different processes. He might be influenced by some other song he likes. Or he might not. He might try to imitate some other musician. Or he might not. Completely different processes of brainstorming, production, and inspiration, etc, all depending on the personality and goals of the musician. Sure, the metaphors of mutation and recombination are vague enough to fit all these processes, but is it helpful for the musician? No. If you think it is, then do tell me how.

    And then you get to things like literature, scientific theories and political ideas, and the process is just miles away from anything that has to do with songs.

    There is no nuts and bolts. There are no general principles of either "mutation and recombination" or "calculation of fitness". The trap is that these metaphors are just so wide that they can encompass everything, but when you get to reality you see just how vague and useless they are.

  5. Genetics features inversions, shifts, deletions, duplications and point mutations. Memetics includes these, adding permutations, recombinations, rotations and various blending operations. Genetics features bi-parental point crossovers. Memetics does too, but adds various blending operations - averaging, majority rule, etc. Memetic linkage mirrors genetic linkage. Memetic dominance mirrors genetic dominance. Memetics studies which memes cooperate and which compete inside minds. Genetics features one genetic code, with a few slight variations. In memetics, we have a different memetic code for each family of microprocessors - as well as at least one for the human brain. These topics are all on the bleeding edge of science.

    Biologists are used to building models that handle diversity. Look at developmental biology, for instance. Science is not just about finding common principles that apply to every instance. It is about building predictive models to find out what's true. To the extent that the world is diverse, science just has to cope.

    As for asking whether memetics is useful to the musician - one might similarly ask whether genetics is helpful to the fruit fly. This just misses the point of what science is for. It isn't there to help its subjects, it is there to help the scientists (and their backers) to understand how the world works.

  6. "Genetics features inversions, shifts, deletions, duplications and point mutations. Memetics includes these, adding permutations, recombinations, rotations and various blending operations. Genetics features bi-parental point crossovers. Memetics does too, but adds various blending operations - averaging, majority rule, etc."

    No, these are just more metaphors that doesn't do anything practical. Where are memetics supposed to fit in the chain of explanation? Take music again for example. Are we asking how different areas of the brain respond when I'm listening to music? How emotions interact with cognition, motivation or blend with other emotions? Well, that's neuroscience, in various branches, not memetics. And if we want to ask how various styles of music evolve and influence each other, that's musical theory and history, not memetics. Scientists and experts are all free to use metaphors from biology if they wish, but at no point in the chain of explanation will a separate science of memetics be necessary.

    "Memetics studies which memes cooperate and which compete inside minds."

    Okay, so switch the word 'memes' with anything, just anything concrete and you'll find that you've entered a different field with no use for memetics. Is it words? Are you studying how words "cooperate and compete inside minds"? Well, welcome to linguistics. Is it sexual fetishes? Welcome to psychology, and other things. How could you possibly benefit from substituting those to "the study of mutation and recombination of memes"?

    Name me one example where memetics has made a helpful prediction in ANY field, which couldn't just as easily have been done without metaphors from genetics. And don't just cite any book that tries to explain why certain jingles, phrases and fashions catch on. That's not "applied memetics", not if they don't actually use terminology from memetics.

    I'm glad you agree it doesn't help the musician, but it doesn't help us understand the world either. If anything, it does the opposite. It's harmful, mostly because memeticists often don't specify what it is they're actually talking about. Are we talking in metaphors or are we actually proposing some kind of little creature in the head? It's funny that you use the word 'parasite' above - that's just the perfect word for avoiding to specify the ontological status of memes, as it can be used both figuratively and for something more "alive".

    "The ultimate meme trick: Why your memes want you to hate the idea of memes". Right, so the WORDS in my head are conspiracing against me now. No, I'm sorry, words don't have wills and desires, nor do they have defense mechanisms. Neither do jingles, ideas or fashions.

  7. Memetics involves neuroscience, just as genetics involves molecular biology. Indeed there's neuromemetics, just as there is molecular genetics. Memetics involves history - in the trivial sense that any science involves some study of the past. Saying that memetics is part of psychology is a bit like saying that genetics is part of cytology. Even if so, so what? Psychology is a big field, which permits subdivision.

    You close with a Midgely-like comment. Midgely wrote: "Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological." In other words, she was saying that she didn't understand. Not understanding is fine, but it works best when combined with a willingness to learn. Without understanding, you'll just waste the time of both of us by attacking foolish straw men.

  8. Can you be specific? What exactly does neuromemetics do? Does it explain how words interact in the head? Something else? Music? You can't just say "there's neuromemetics", I want to know what it actually does, specifically, because I'm feeling more and more convinced that as soon as you try to APPLY, or PREDICT anything with memetics it's just gonna turn into some other field. You could invent tons of imaginary fields like "memetic linguistics" if you'd like, but I still don't think it adds anything to science but metaphors.

    So since you apparently can't cite any successful prediction from memetics - could you say something it could predict even in principle? Something that's not better addressed by any other already existing field?

    No you can't - because memetics is 100% metaphorical.

    "Not understanding is fine, but it works best when combined with a willingness to learn. Without understanding, you'll just waste the time of both of us by attacking foolish straw men."

    I'm trying to understand.

    In any case, I'm attacking the guy you quoted in the post, maybe he's a strawman, I don't know - it's a dumb quote. It really shows what I dislike about memeticists - not being clear about what is metaphor and what is not (and I suspect many meme-fans are even deliberately trying to blur this line). Just to be really clear - do you think that WORDS, or groups of words, really have some hidden agenda to make you not realize that you've been taken over by parasites?

    Do you think that words ARE parasites,
    or is it just that they could be metaphorically DESCRIBED as parasites?
    Which one is it? It's either one of these two, at least for one particular type of 'meme'.

    Haven't read much from Midgely, but I guess she just wanted to point out to the general public that Dawkins use of "selfish" isn't really the same as the "selfish" we use for ourselves (that is, genes aren't consciously selfish). A silly point perhaps, but then again, I prefer that desire for clarity to the frustrating vagueness of memeticists. Speaking about Dawkins, here's a quote:

    "..if you look at my original suggestion of memes, they were really almost a rhetorical device for telling people that in spite of what they'd just read about the selfish gene, DNA was not everything. Memes provided a way of saying, Look, genes aren't the only self-replicating entities. Maybe ideas play that role. I'm not committed to memes as the explanation for human culture."