Monday, 15 August 2016

Joe Brewer cheers for memes

Joe Brewer has written an essay explaining his enthusiasm for memes. He calls it "meme theory" - instead of "memetics". "Memetics" seems like more regular terminology to me. While support is great I am not sure I can endorse all of Joe's arguments.

Joe says: "The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence [...]". Not many meme critics say that though. A more common criticism is that meme replication implies high fidelity copying - which is not present in all cultural transmission. That's a more reasonable position. My own response is to agree that the "replicator" terminology has some issues, but the notion of a meme does not depend on the "replicator" concept in the first place.

Joe argues that the digital revolution somehow makes memes more reasonable. It certainly leads to more high-fidelity copying. However, high-fidelity copying is an inappropriate foundational concept for cultural evolution. As with DNA genes, evolutionary theory has to be able to cope with any environmental mutation rate. I don't really see how the digital revolution helps with memetics - any credible theory of cultural evolution has to cover the era of pre-digital transmission too.

In the comments Joe talks about "cultural traits that have meme-like qualities to them". Talk of meme-like culture and not so meme-like culture leads immediately to the question of generality. If not all culture is "meme like", it seems as though we should adopt a framework that is more general. IMO, meme enthusiasts should firmly reject this position. Framing some culture as more meme-like than others is a construct of critics. For example, the Dual inheritance page on Wikipedia says:

Proponents point out that many cultural traits are discrete, and that many existing models of cultural inheritance assume discrete cultural units, and hence involve memes.
IMO, no meme proponent should ever make that argument. It is a bad argument. It should stay on meme-critical web pages where it belongs, complete with a citation to a source that provides no support to the claim in question.

Joe argues that "meme theory" has been productive. It has certainly produced much of worth, including arguable considerable popularity and attention on the field. However it could easily have been more productive - and might have been so if so many academics had bothered to understood it. In the long war between the scientists and popularizers, everybody lost.

Joe is probably right in part that a reluctance to affiliate with Dawkins is involved. On the whole, the meme promoters have been a motley crew which scientists have been reluctant to affiliate with. Memetics lacked leadership when Dawkins dropped out. The other meme promoters are obviously partly responsible for the situation.

I confess that Joe's article had me rolling my eyes quite a bit. He discusses the shortcoming of The Selfish Gene in ways that make you think that he supports its critics. He approvingly cites group selection advocates Wilson and Wilson - mentioning the terrible "Social Conquest of Earth" book approvingly. The book "Evolution in Four Dimensions", gets mentioned favourably - despite the book's dismal critical coverage of memetics. I don't think I have ever recommended this book to anyone. Perhaps worst of all, the article repeatedly criticizes reductionism. Reductionism is a key tool in the scientific toolkit. Most critics of reductionism are, by and large not real scientists. I'm sorry to hear that Joe is part of the "holiestier than thou" club. As therapy, here's a diagram from Douglas Hofstadter:

I wish more people would promote memetics as the best theory of cultural evolution. Memetics combined cultural evolution with symbiology early on. We have Dawkins (1976) writing:

Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically
While Boyd and Richerson (1985) wrote:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modeling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.
I've compared the Boyd and Richerson approach to studying smallpox by focusing on the "observable events in the lives of individual" human hosts. All very well - but what about the smallpox virus?!?

Dawkins and Cloak had the better vision here, IMO. They deserve credit for getting things right early on.


  1. I think that both the Dawkins and Boyd quotes are problematic. I'm not sure what "living structures" actually means. Whatever the unit of cultural selection is, I consider it highly unlikely that it is "alive" in the same way a biological organism is alive. This unit can be entirely passive and still result in the patterns of replication and selection we see in the world.

    I would also disagree with Boyd and Richerson about their assertion that culture does not evolve "independently of the individuals". People are not the unit of cultural selection. It does seem pretty clear that the cultural system evolves independently of the biological system even though they are related.

    Overall, I see the biggest issue is that the foundational terms of cultural evolution are still not very well defined. What, for example, are the cultural equivalents to a genotype or a phenotype? What is the micro-evolutionary environment in which these units evolve? What is the macro-evolutionary environment? I fall into Joe Brewer's category 3 with a strong sympathy for the meme concept but thinking that there are concepts from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that are better candidates for the role of "meme".

  2. Some modern definitions of "life" classify culture as being alive. For example, Maynard Smith and Szathmary said life was:

    "any population of entities possessing those properties that are needed if the population is to evolve by natural selection".