Monday, 10 September 2012

Michael Ruse on memetics

Michael Ruse once wrote:

I don't buy into this meme bullsh** but put everything — especially including ethics — in the language of genes.

Fighting talk! However his public critiques seem to have left something to be desired. For example, in Darwinism and its Discontents, Ruse claims that cultural evolution is progressive, while organic evolution is not. However, that is complete nonsense - both cultural and organic evolution are progressive.

The longest criticism from Ruse that I've seen so far is now available in the book:

The Philosophy of Human Evolution (Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy and Biology).

I read it. It seems vacuous to me. Ruse mostly confines himself to expressing the criticisms of others - citing Bruce Edmonds, Adam Kuper and Tim Lewens. The positions of Adam Kuper and Tim Lewens are confused - and are hardly worth bothering with. Bruce Edmonds's criticism is sociological - he says that memetics never became popular. However, science isn't entirely a popularity contest. There's also the issue of whether ideas are correct to consider.

Like many meme critics, Ruse poses many rhetorical questions. For example, he asks whether an undergraduate degree in physics represents the same meme as an an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I think the critics think such questions make memetics look vague. However, the exact same problem also applies to genes. Inversions and deletions scramble up genes in a big way. If geneticsits don't always agree about whether two DNA sequences represent the same "gene" or not, there seems to be no good reason for holding memeticists to a higher standard.

The science doesn't depend upon such issues. You can still do meme-frequency analysis without bothering too much with the issue of what counts as a meme. Different researchers can measure meme distribition in different ways, and that's fine.

Ruse concludes:

Until it seriously starts to produce results we can put it to one side.
Memetics has been vindicated on practically all fronts in the years since 1976. The science behind memetics seems to be snowballing to me, with more and more publications about Darwinian cultural evolution year on year. Ruse shows little sign of knowledge or understanding of the area, IMO.

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