Saturday, 1 February 2014

Revolutionary memetics

In my article about Cultural evolution's scientific lag I mention several revolutions that have already taken place in the organic realm - but which still seem to be sorely needed in the case of cultural evolution.

  • The 'gene' revolution (1960-1980) - associated with Richard Dawkins and George Williams;
  • The kin selection revolution (1960-1980) - migrating away from "for the good of the group" thinking;
  • The symbiology revolution (1960-1980) - which showed the significance of symbiosis and symbiogenesis.
In my opinion, these are cases where a cursory look at history should be enough to help foresee what changes are coming down the pike in the cultural realm. As Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A. & Laland, K.N. (2004) put it:

By recognizing that our current understanding of culture is comparable to that attained by biology in 1859, perhaps some shortcuts can be taken by learning lessons from the succeeding 150 years of biological research.

Some other previous revolutions are also relevant to memetics:

  • The molecular revolution (1950-1980) - which started with Francis and Crick;
  • The germ theory revolution (1800-1870) - which identified microbes as the causal agents of many diseases;
  • The evolution revolution (1859-2014) - which started with Darwin's book;
The evolution revolution is now pretty clearly underway in the cultural realm - after over a century of stagnation and inactivity.

Memetics is also related to some future revolutions. It incorporates intelligent design into evolutionary theory - a move that seems likely to make many of those students of evolution who have done battle with creationists choke. Genetic engineering also involves the incorporation intelligent design into evolutionary theory - but most evolutionists have managed to ignore this - so far.

Another future revolution is that represented by Universal Darwinism. Memetics involves Darwinism applied to cultural change - but Darwinism applies much more broadly - including application to physical and chemical systems not normally considered to be alive.

The revolutionary aspect of memetics is anathema to academia - which is pretty conservative and generally prefers gradual progress to revolutions.

For example, in their 2005 book, "The Origin of Cultures", Boyd and Richerson (2005) described their perspective as follows:

We believe that the Darwinian theory of cultural evolution will make contributions across the broad sweep of problems in the human sciences, but the project is one of introducing additional useful tools and unifying concepts rather than an imperial ambition to replace great swaths of existing theory or methods.

Perhaps they are just trying to placate their anxious anthropological colleagues. However, this hasn't been how the Darwinian revolution has gone in other domains. The invasion of new ideas often displaces and renders obsolete old, pre-Darwinian thinking. Some concepts and data remain, but many other things are transformed - in the light of the new knowledge and new understanding which evolutionary theory brings. Remember the quote: "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution". It's an exaggeration, but even so. Perhaps academia will continue to resist memetics - while it believes that it will cause established heads to roll. However, we can't have a softly-softly approach - one that waits for the scientists involved to die - before introducing changes. That kind of gradual revolution would be too slow. Ignorance and lack of comprehension do much damage. Viva la revolucion!

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