Sunday, 10 June 2018

Jordan Peterson new meme critique

Most modern meme critics frequently recycle the same content. Jordan Peterson seems to have come up with a new critique in a recent discussion with Sue Blackmore (starting 10 minutes in):

What do you think of the whoele meme theory? I think it's a shallow derivation of the idea of archetype and that Dawkins would do well to read some Jung. In fact if he thought farther and wasn't so blinded by his a-priori stance on religion, he would have found that the deeper explanation of meme is in fact archetype.
Jungian archetypes are innate, universal precursors to ideas. Memetics is related to the concept (since it deals with ideas), but archetypes aren't really a "deeper explanation of memes". "Meme" is mostly just catchy terminology for "socially-transmitted idea".

Modern scientists may not discuss Jungian archetypes very much - but there are certainly conceptual equivalents. One modern perspective involves the distinction between "evoked" and "transmitted" culture. Evoked culture is the product of innate Jungian archetypes interacting with environmental variation. Transmitted culture is not encoded in genes, it is instead, copied from others. There's a spectrum in between the two concepts. Some evolutionary psychologists are very interested in "evoked" culture and play down the significance of transmitted culture. The enthusiasts for "cultural attractors" are also sometimes involved in studying Jungian archetypes under another name.

Jungian archetypes are probably not mentioned very much due to association with the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious - a mystical notion which was subsequently widely rejected by scientists. Jungian psychology is about as out-of-date as Freud. I think if you tell modern scientists they should "read some Jung" you will generally get back some incredulous responses.

Anyway, Jordan Peterson's critique is apparently of a "straw memetics" that holds that ideas are 100% transmitted and 0% affected by our evolved psychology. No practitions actually believe this. In practice, our evolved psychology has always been on the table. There are plenty of ways of incorporating innate biases into cultural evolutionary models. They can affect the selective environment of memes, or they can influence recombination or mutation operators.

However, one of the central ideas of memetics (and cultural evolution in general) is that there's more to culture than innate predispositions (i.e. Jungian archetypes). Culture is not just about variations in the environment evoking different genetic responses (as in the "jukebox" model). There's also transmitted culture, and it is big and important, just as anthropologists have long been saying.


  1. Found you through the linked video, seeking more discussion on the co-evolution topic. Thanks for the illuminating work.

    The issue I'm having here is that you set up transmission as a distinct kind of culture, rather than simply a mode of culture transportation. We copy behavior, but the behavior that we are copying does not itself arise in a vacuum — it must either be strictly (biologically/psychologically) innate, personally innate (as in, owed to a combination of strict innateness and the coloring properties of an individual's unique experiences), or copied from elsewhere deeper down the rabbit hole, no?

    On archetypes: it seems that a better distinction might perhaps be one of scale. Is is my (rudimentary) understanding that memes can be essentially trivial in nature. Archetypes however are a distinct kind of socio-psychological construction with roots in the early period of the development of unique human consciousness, prior to our ability to 'sensically' articulate phenomena. They thus necessarily color and perhaps even supplant the understanding of that which they represent.

    Peterson's meta-point on the archetypal God is revealing: that the articulated idea of 'the future' came out of a pre-existing idea of some pseudo-personal God force with which humans could uniquely bargain.

  2. The distinction between "evoked" and "transmitted" culture which I referred to in this article is the one popularised by Cosmides and Tooby (1992). Cosmides and Tooby claimed that the "standard social science model" identified culture with complex patterns that differ from group to group, and then pointed out that some of these might be down to genetic responses to environmental variation (what they called "evoked" culture). I don't promote or endorse the definition of culture they are criticizing. Indeed, it seems as though it was probably mostly a straw man in the first place. When I say "culture" I am always talking about something which is socially-transmitted - though of course it can also be bent by genetic and environmental forces.