Monday, 8 July 2013

Cultural evolution's meme wars

Cultural evolution has had some meme wars of its own. One is over a topic close to the heart of this blog: memes.

One feature of cultural evolution's meme wars has been that it has mostly been a war between the scientists and the popularizers. Of course some scientists have been on the meme team - Durham, Pagel, Hamilton, Williams, etc - but the "other side" is practically all scientists, whereas most popularizers have gone for the "meme" terminology.

Normally I would be inclined to side with the scientists in such disputes. However, this time it looks to me as though the popularizers have it right - and the academics are dragging their feet for no terribly good reason.

One problem is the academics make bogus technical criticisms of the meme terminology - showing in the process that they haven't even managed to find a sympathetic interpretation of it. That's a bad position to launch technical criticisms from.

Such a war is pretty unusual. You might think that academics would cooperate with the popularizers, and encourage them in bringing attention to their field. Instead we appear to have fractures, division, fighting and tribalism.

Cultural evolution's meme wars look as though they have been pretty destructive to me. Academics are mostly still struggling with a backwards and watered-down version of memetics, apparently designed to appeal to anthropologists. Without much in the way of a PR department, the associated revolution in our understanding of evolution has been progressing at a snail's pace for decades. Cultural evolution and memetics are key areas of science - of great social and political import. It is pretty tragic to see so many of the participants struggling over wounds inflicted by their fellows - who they surely ought to be cooperating with.

No comments:

Post a Comment