Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Internalism vs externalism in memetics


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about the internalism vs externalism controversy in memetics.

One controversial issue in memetics since its early days concerns whether memes can be usefully said to be embodied in images, videos, and texts, or whether memes are things that only exist inside human minds. I cover this controversy in my book on memetics, which is now available. This video is intended to give subscribers a taste of the topic.

The controversy started in 1982 with Richard Dawkins (1982, p 109) doing a bit of an about-turn from his earlier definition of a meme as a unit of cultural inheritance - saying:
A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain
Dawkins also said that he was insufficiently clear about distinguishing memotypes from phemotypes, and cited Cloak's conception from 1975 of i-culture and m-culture as the correct way to think about things. Dawkins held a similar view years later in the year 2000, when he said:
Well if the analogy with genes is right, there ought to be something equivalent to DNA, and that something I presume would be material in the brain. So when I pass an idea on to you, or when you pass an idea on to somebody else, something in your brain gets reproduced in that other person’s brain.
This position became known as "internalism". It is frequently contrasted with "externalism" - which holds that it is perfectly OK to talk about videos, images and texts as containing memes.

Internalism subsequently gained many supporters. Richard Brodie wrote:
A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.
Aaron Lynch defined memes as being a type of memory. Nick Rose praised internalism in his "Controversies in Meme Theory". Robert Aunger wrote a book called "The Electric Meme" about attemts to pin memes onto mental structures. In that book he wrote:
If memes could exist in brains, in speech and in artifacts, they would be the superheros of the replicator world, able to transform themselves into any shape or form at will, like the Proteus of Greek mythology. Instead, memes must be confined to one physical substrate, just as their brethren, the biological replicators genes and prions, are. I thus argue that only one substrate can be associated with memes.
However, many experts on memetics came out against internalism. Dennett is an externalist - writing in 2000:
I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information
Blackmore is an externalist - writing in 2001:
We do a disservice to the basic concept of the meme if we try to restrict it to information residing only inside people’s heads - as well as landing ourselves in all sorts of further confusions. For this reason I agree with Dennett, Wilkins, Durham and Dawkins A, who do not restrict memes to being inside brains.
Derek Gatherer famously made a plea for memes to be measurable things - and not to tuck them away inside brains where they would be challenging to gain access to experimentally.

However, internalism is still alive and kicking today. A recent comment on an earlier video of mine eloquently complained:
Memes cannot expand to inanimate objects (like clay tablets) the same reason genes cannot expand to eyes, claws, fur,? etc... The clay tablet is a manifestation of memes, the same way the claw is a phenotype... I keep hearing this non-sense about the expansion of memes to computer hard-drives and so on, and it annoys me because it's simply illogical if you follow the genotype-memotype, phenotype-meme manifestation analogy.
The internalism/externalism debate has been mostly ignored in academia - since most academics are approaching the subject from a population-memetics angle - where heritable traits are the focus and the mechanisms of heredity are an implementation detail. However, internalism also appears to be still alive among academic students of cultural evolution. For example, in his recent book on cultural evolution, Alex Mesoudi, wrote:
The ideational definition of culture given in chapter 1 implies that the cultural equivalent of the genotype is the information stored in people's brains that represents their beliefs, attitudes, values, skills, knowledge, and so on. The cultural equivalent of the phenotype is the expression of that information in the form of behaviour, speech and artefacts.
Mesoudi goes on to explain how this makes cultural evolution Lamarckian.

Can we perhaps explain the extended persistence of internalism and externalism as representing two different perspectives on the same subject matter, each with their own strengths and weaknesses? I don't think so. Internalism just totally sucks. I think it persists because it is an intuitive and attractive approach which people adopt before they have properly thought things through.

Internalism introduces a bizarre system of inheritance which destroys germ-line continuity, and introduces a Lamarckian aspect to inheritance in which phenotypes recreate genotypes in each generation.

Also, internalism typically attempts to localise memes inside brains. However, brains are not the only repository of memes these days - memes also survive and are copied by computer systems. If you look at the latest music albums, you will see that they are widely copied on peer-to-peer networks, and that they undergo occasional corruption during transmission. However, what is actually copied is a bit pattern inside computers. This bit pattern makes it into human brains only as a pale shadow that is rarely actually copied from. The computer networks handle the actual information that is copied. With the transmission of much modern music, human brains never have most of the information that is actually copied around inside them in the first place - they actually contain part of the meme's phemotype - not its memotype.

Internalists sometimes recognise that one day there will be intelligent machines with thier own societies and cultural transmission, but they rarely seem to understand how much culture is copied, filtered and transmitted by machines - even today.

Computers storing, copying and expressing memes totally destroys the internalist dream of memes having only one substrate associated with them, with only one memetic code. There are in fact, hundreds of substrates for memes, with hundreds of memetic codes. That is exactly what the externalists have been saying all along - which brings us onto the topic of externalism.

By contrast with internalism, externalism is simple, beautiful and neat. It is based on an information theoretic version of genetics, according to which inherited information is the genotype, and everything that depeds on that is the phenotype. The heritable information can be represented in practically any physical medium - a simple consequence of information portability. From this perspective, memes can exist on CDs, hard drives, paper, film and clay tablets. When people describe videos and images as being memes, they are not making a daft category error - those things really do contain memes.

Externalism features germ-line continuity. It doesn't have a crazy Lamarckian stage in which phenotypes generate genotypes in each generation. Instead there is ordinary Weismannian inheritance where memes are copied to create more memes - just as genes are copied to create more genes in DNA evolution. That is not to say that memetic evolution is not Lamarckian at all - but that is another story which I am not going to get into here.

For me, internalism represents a common misunderstanding of memetic evolution works. Internalists entertain the idea that memetic inheritance features a bizarre Lamarckian inheritance paradigm in each generation. This makes people think that memetic evolution works in a manner that is wildly different from the way in which organic evolution operates. This hinders people's understanding of the depth of the relationship between the cultural and organic realms, preventing them from effectively reusing their knowledge of organic evolution in the cultural realm.

At this stage, I think internalism offers so little in the way of benefits, and causes so much confusion, that it should just curl up and die. I identify it here as a failed doctrine. It causes serious confusion when dealing with memes inside computers and serious confusion when considering the issue of Lamarckian inheritance of memes. Internalism's claimed benefits - of a single memetic storage medium and a single memetic code - are not benefits at all - but rather are misleading falsehoods. Death to internalism!



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