Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tim Tyler: Paul Ehrlich's critique of memetics


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a video which responds to some of Paul Ehrlich's criticisms of memetics, which he gave in an interview with Carl Zimmer.

In my book on memetics - which is out now - I take a look at some of the critics and criticisms of memetics. A number of technical criticisms of memetics have been raised - but these appear to be rather uniformly uniformed or misguided. Here we'll look at Paul Ehrlich's memetics critique.

Paul Ehrlich is being interviewed by Carl Zimmer - who had a nice section on memes in his evolution book. Paul Ehrlich knows some things about cultural evolution, and has written some nice papers on the topic - including a couple of interesting ones with Marcus Feldman. Here's Carl, on the left, and Paul, on the right:

[Paul Ehrlich]

Paul complains that the mutation rate in cultural evolution is high, giving the example of chinese whispers.

The mutuation rate in organic evolution is, in fact, highly variable. Some organisms reduce their mutation rate well below what would most help them to evolve adaptively. However, other organisms attempt to live in environments which are too hostile for them, and their genomes get mutated into oblivion, and they suffer from an mutational error catastrophe. Heat, radiation, and chemicals can all cause the mutation rate to shoot up. If you want to see the equivalent of chinese whispers in the organic realm, you can look at the creatures living around ground zero in Chernobyl and Fukushima. You will see that there is no shortage of mutations there. Similar hostile environments occur naturally and frequently involve intense heat or radiation. Evolutionary theory handles differeing mutation rates just fine. The mutation rate is a parameter in most evolutionary theories of inheritance, and can be set to whatever value you like.

Cultural evolution does high-fidelity transmission too. The bible illustrates reasonably high transmission fidelity is not a new phenomenon, and on the internet, engineers can produce more-or-less whatever error levels they like, using error correction technologies - and they can easily push error rates down further than is seen in organic evolution.

Paul says that you can't refuse to accept genes - whereas you can refuse to accept memes.

However, that's not true: you can refuse to accept genes. Contraception use represents a refusal to accept genes. Use of barrier contraceptives by men results in a substantial reduction in the spread of sexually transmitted disease genes. Use of hormonal contraception by women results in a rejection of her parner's genes. If you avoid sharing needles with drug addicts you can substantially reduce the chance of you acquiring the genes of a number of unwanted diseases. Vaccines represent a premptive rejection of certain genes - and so on.

Paul says that genes are largely transmitted without modification, whereas memes can be modified - and that you can't change genes deliberately - whereas you can change memes.

Except that people can change genes deliberately these days. Genetic engineering is still a relative newcomer to the scene, but already it is used ubiquitously in making the foods that we eat. Engineering isn't really much of a difference between the organic and cultural realms - since we have both genetic engineering and memetic engineering. Evolutionary theory incorporates memetic engineering in much the same way it is incorporating genetic engineering - via directed mutations and deliberative selection.

Paul says of memetics that "in 30 years it really hasn't led anywhere". Now, it seems to me that the 1976 publication by Richard Dawkins on the topic was fairly rapidly followed by a flurry of activity in the field from academics - with publications in the early 1980s from Lumsden and Wilson, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and Boyd and Richerson. That may not be a coincidence - and Richard Dawkins does get cited. Yes, these folk mostly attempted to rebrand memetics in the process of putting their own personal stamp on it, but most of the basic ideas are pretty similar underneath - except in the case of Lumsden and Wilson, who were way off base, as is now widely recognised. One thing you have to bear in mind is that in academia all types of cultural evolution face the problem that the people whose job it is to study the evolution of human culture - cultural anthropologists, historians and so on - mostly can't stomach Darwinism, and have a 150 year tradition of misguided resistance to evolutionary explanations. This appalling situation stunts all academic forms of cultural evolution, not just its best known form, memetics. We have had multiple memetics conferences, a memetics journal a number of books and hundreds of papers on memetics - and on the internet there has been a meme revolution. Internet memes are now covered regularly by news channels, and memetic hitchhiking is used ubiquitously by marketing companies to help distribute their products. Instead, academia has cultural evolution and gene-culture co-evolution, which are extremely similar to memetics, but typically shun the "m"-word, due to what looks a lot like petty turf wars and "not invented here" syndrome. Most of the problems with the adoption of memetics are really sociological problems. There's nothing technically wrong with memetics.

Paul Ehrlich has made some other criticism of memetics in print. For instance, in 2005, he was the lead author of a paper which said:

Among humans, genes can only pass unidirectionally from one generation to the next (vertically), normally through intimate contact. But ideas (or “memes”) now regularly pass between individuals distant from each other in space and time, within generations, and even backwards through generations. Through mass media or the Internet, a single individual can influence millions of others within a very short period of time.
In fact these objections are rather easily identified as being misguided ones. Cold virus genes pass from host parent to host offspring, they pass between individuals of the same generation and are also transmitted from offspring to parent. Hepatatis B is a hardy virus that can exist on almost any surface for up to one month and so can be transmitted by mail. Anthrax is an infectious bacterium that has been weaponised and sent through the mail. There are all kinds of other water-borne infections that can travel large distances using the river system. Salmonella and e-coli bacteria are able to survive on food inside aeroplanes. Viruses can spread from one person to many - in what is commonly known as a pandemic. So: the relationship between the cultural and organic realms looks pretty close in these respects. It seems pretty clear that Paul has been criticising memetics without being very familiar with its basic concepts.

The reason experts in the field produce invalid technical criticisms of memetics is because they are unable to produce correct technical criticsms of it - because there is nothing wrong with it.


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