Saturday, 12 July 2014

Memes are not cultural traits

Memeophobe Peter Turchin took some steps towards publicly explaining his opposition to memes recently. What follows is my attempt to untangle Peter's meme muddle:

Peter wrote:

A cultural trait is similar to a meme, a word coined by Richard Dawkins, which is typically explained as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins proposed that memes are cultural equivalents of genes—self-replicating units of cultural transmission. Cultural traits, however, are a more general category than memes, because they also include quantitative traits that cannot be easily represented as discrete alternatives (for example, an inclination to trust strangers, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog).
Here is my reply:

Traits are different from genes, just as cultural traits should be considered to be different from memes. However, practically nobody argues that traits are more general than genes – and then concludes genes aren’t useful. That argument would be nonsensical: genes are heritable information, traits are the results of their expression. Similarly, cultural traits and memes are best treated as different names for different things: memes are the heritable cultural information, and cultural traits are the result of their expression.

A closer synonym for meme within academia is “cultural variant”. However the term “meme” is better, shorter and massively more popular. It won, long, long ago.

Why speak of "memes" rather than just discussing "cultural traits"? Because these are different things! Traits are on the phenotype side, while memes are in the genotype side. Or - using more words - memes are heritable cultural information while cultural traits are their expression in some environmental context.

No one argues against genes on the grounds that traits are more general than genes. Well, apart from Charles Goodnight, maybe. The reason is that doing so would be ridiculous. So: why argue against memes on the grounds that cultural traits are more general than memes?

I think the answer is that because often in science the more general theory is to be preferred - if it is equal in other respects. However, when comparing trait-oriented theories with gene-oriented theories, there can be no pretense of equality in other areas. Traits are the product of developmental processes and environmental interactions. Those are enormous complexities. One of the useful things that was discovered during the gene revolution was all the mileage that it is still possible to get if you strip away all that complexity and just focus on the heritable information - i.e. the genes.

As a brief summary, genes (i.e. heritable traits) are what persists in evolution, while other aspects of the phenotype are lost in each generation, don't persist, have less influence and can often be usefully ignored.

One of the big ideas of memetics, is that we can use the exact same approach in cultural evolution - and get most of the same benefits. That's not to say that ontogeny isn't interesting, or that students of cultural evolution can totally ignore developmental processes - just that memes (i.e. bits of heritable cultural information) are a tremendously useful and helpful abstraction in understanding the cultural evolutionary process.

Just as genes are a tremendously useful and helpful abstraction in understanding the organic evolutionary process.

I think that Peter Turchin is just confused about memes. He hasn't found a sympathetic interpretation of them - and so doesn't know what he is talking about. However, why go on in public about something you don't properly understand? In my experience, one sometimes-legitimate reason is to give others the opportunity to straighten you out. Time will tell if this process helps in Peter's case.

[Note: if anyone reads my quoted comment above and thinks that "cultural variant" and "cultural trait" sound like the same thing, please look up how the term "cultural variant" is used by its proponents in academia. It is actually used by them to refer to heritable information - and not to the corresponding traits.]

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