Saturday, 30 March 2013

What are the real problems with memetics?

I've read a lot of criticisms of memetics - as part of my project to rebut them.

For the most part, the criticisms are not worth too much. Most of the critics don't understand memetics well enough to present competent criticisms - and in many cases they don't seem to be trying properly to find a sympathetic interpretation.

However, I figure that I am in a better position than most critics - in that I know the topic pretty well.

In the spirit of steelmanning: what do I think the real problems are for memetics?

  • Memetics has historically been a theory of the evolution of socially-learned information. However there's also the evolution of individually-learned information to consider. Dividing individual learning from social learning when classifying scientific fields seems suspect. Social learning and individual learning interact deeply, and attempts to divide the two topics seem to face problems. In many respects, it would make more sense to have a field that covered the evolution of all ideas. I've covered this issue previously in my articles on Lemes, The case for private culture, The case for private memes and Individual learning in memetics. Academic students of cultural evolution face the same issue - however few of them show much sign of understanding the need for a theory of the evolution of ideas within minds.

What should be done about this problem? Fairly obviously, the field needs to self-consciously expand to cover the evolution of ideas or concepts. Some authors have already taken this step - e.g. the work of John Lin explicitly deals with the evolution of concepts. We can still have an evolutionary science of social learning - but it should clearly be subsidiary to the science of learning. I still like the idea of expanding our conception of culture to cover individual learning - as a solution to this issue. The definition of "culture" has always been a matter of controversy. While it may seem like a radical redefinition, it makes a lot of sense to me.

The idea that memetics will be boosted by discoveries of how memes are represented within minds may have something to it. Watson and Crick helped the science of genetics establish itself - memetics may experience a similar boost in the future - when the neural representations of memes are better elucidated.

The rise of academic opposition to memetics among students of cultural evolution seems to be an unfortunate phenomenon. I think memeticists should make such opposition look merely stupid. If you work in the field and don't understand memetics, that should be a matter of personal embarrassment - not something to advertise publicly.

I think most of the other problems for memetics are not really technical, but have more to do with marketing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tyler, I've read your book and watch most of your stuff on yoir site. I find the rigor of your analysis enlightening. I particularly like the subject of personal learning.
    Thank you for developing this subject.
    I believe that this can make memetics much more interesting for the individual.