Sunday, 8 December 2013

Richard Dawkins - on the definition of the term "meme"

Richard Dawkins recently wrote - in an AMA on Reddit:
  • Q: How do you feel now that memes, first discussed in your book The Selfish Gene, have become ubiquitous in internet culture? [...]
    • A: I'm pleased that the concept of meme has become widely understood, but the true meaning is a bit broader than the common understanding. Anything transmitted with high fidelity from brain to brain by imitation is a meme. [...]
Of course, that is true. However, to briefly recap why this sort of definition of a meme is not very useful scientifically:

Cultural elements spread from one human to the next irrespective of their copying fidelity. Essentially the same math applies to cultural elements that are copied with high fidelity and poor fidelity. Of course poor fidelity copying typically leads to a mutational meltdown - and acts against adaptive evolution. However, it does not always do so. There are ways of applying error correction to systems that exhibit poor copying fidelity. Some of these are used in real life cultural situations. Copying the most popular variant can stabilize even poor fidelity copying systems - and prevent a mutational meltdown. It is basic information theory that you can preserve signal fidelity even if you have poor quality data transmission channels.

There's little point in having a science of high fidelity copied cultural elements. It's would be a subset of the science of all copied cultural elements.

Also, there is no good reason to mention "imitation". Imitation is a type of social learning. A science of all social learning is at hand. This covers imitation, teaching, local enhancement - and other types of social learning. Being specific when you can so easily be general is not the scientific way.

In my opinion, Dawkins isn't helping memetics with this kind of material.


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