Monday, 17 June 2013

The excesses of externalism

While I've written about the problems with internalism, so far, I haven't written much about the Benzon / Gatherer position on cultural genotypes and phenotypes.

Benzon and Gatherer have an unusual position on what constitutes a meme - somewhat reminiscent of behaviourism. Benzon is still promoting the idea in 2013.

Benzon says:

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist's phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype.
Gatherer says:

This is a behaviourist scheme, which treats memes as cultural events, behaviours or artefacts which may be transmitted or copied. Outside the occurrence of the event, the practice of the behaviour, or the lifetime of the artefact, the meme has no existence.
A similar position appears to be shared by Sylvain Magne, who says:

All I want to say here is that the fact that memes are not in brains does not mean that memes don't exist. I go back to my own ideas here which are that memes are actually travelling on the media that we use to communicate, and that our cultural brain structures are the phenotypes of these memes.
Firstly, my own position is that memes are inherited cultural information, and they exist both outside and inside brains. This position appears to be shared by Dennett, Blackmore, Williams, Wilkins, Hull - and others.

The Benzon/Gatherer position at least avoids internalism, which seems to have many adherents, despite being pretty dopey. It seems \\evident that peer-to-peer movie copying (for example) mostly takes place outside of minds, and the pleasures and rushes they produce inside minds are phenotypic meme products.

So: what's the problem with this defining of memes as existing outside minds? Isn't this just a matter of different definitions? I don't think so. What is genotype and what is phenotype influences what counts as a developmental process. There can't easily be no fact of the matter about what counts as a developmental process in cultural evolution. To the extent that the dispute is down to terminology, it is part of our task to decide what terminology is best.

Like internalism, the position features a lack of germ-line continuity. It has what is inherited flipping back and forth between genotype and phenotype in a manner that is quite different from what happens in the organic realm. Adherents thus tend to subscribe to Lamarckian interpretations of cultural evolution. The position features inherited phenotypic mutation and recombination - operations normally applied to the genotype. Where did the word podcast come from? From the words "iPod" and "broadcast" having sex. However, this took place inside a mind. With memes inside minds, this is simple, obvious and mirrors what happens in the organic realm. With memes excluded from minds, this idea is more awkward to express.

Yes, it's nice to be able to measure things. We are beginning to be able to measure memes inside minds using MRI machines - e.g. see neuromarketing. We should not dismiss memes inside minds due to mere measurement difficulties.

The transition from memes inside minds to memes in artifacts and behaviours is memetic metamorphosis. We see organic metamorphosis in the transition from caterpillar to butterfly. However, we don't argue over whether the caterpillar or the butterfly is the phenotype. Both contain the inherited information responsible for their construction. As with the organic realm, in cultural evolution, elaborative developmental processes that result in non-inherited products aren't confined to any particular lifecycle-stage. They occur both inside and outside of minds.

I don't have much to add to the "traditional" objections to this whole idea. For example John Wilkins' article Memes ain't just in the head pretty much nails my own views on the topic. Consider this an endorsement of these decade-old criticisms.

Having the "germ line" consisting of what is inherited and the "phenotype" being things the germ line produces seems beautiful and simple to me - and it applies equally to organic and cultural evolution. It is a neat, general-purpose model - which is what the denial of memes inside minds lacks.


1 comment:

  1. Great post.
    I am actually currently clarifying and argumenting my position on this matter in a new article. I believe you'll find it interesting :)
    I'll make sure I share it with you when it's up.