Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Meme denialism

Around the time that the 2011 internet meme explosion happened, I predicted that memeticists would see less of the criticism that ¨Memes don't exist¨. Claiming that ¨memes don't exist¨ had been a common criticism of memetics for decades before that. For example, here's J. Marks (2000):
Now unlike genes, memes have the decided disadvantage of not actually existing.
However, now - with memes saturating popular culture and the news, critics who claim that memes don't exist run a bigger risk of looking out-of-touch - or just stupid.

I think this has happened - memetics has seen less of this criticism of late. Meme denialism is on the wane. However, I was reminded of this issue recently by reading a 2013 article by Charles Goodnight - in which he claims that ¨Memes do not exist, end of story¨ and ¨there is no meme¨.

I can't say I'm impressed by Charles' position. He seems to want to act as though the 'gene' revolution of the 1960s and 1970s never happened. This would, I believe, be a retrograde step. Distinguishing between heritable information and its expression is extremely useful to evolutionists - even if Charles doesn't seem to appreciate this.

Charles also seems hung up on the issue of whether 'discrete' memes can represent 'continuous' human culture. This seems like a non-issue to me. For one thing, there's no evidence that human culture is 'continuous' in the first place. Forms of culture that can't be digitized and put on the internet have proved elusive. Alleged 'continuous' human culture has not been shown to exist. Indeed, philosophers don't know if anything in the world is continuous. In Shannon information theory, all information is represented by finite quantities. Supposedly-continuous phenomena can only be described via discrete approximations. Direct descriptions are impossible - since the value of a continuous variable would typically takes an infinite quantity of information to specify. Memetics operates in this realm of information theory. This isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Update 2014-07-13:

Another recent case involves Gene Anderson:

Memes and culture traits: There is an absolutely enormous amount of work on this. Nothing remotely like a “meme” exists. Cultural knowledge is not packaged in neat little clumps, does not spread like genes or bugs or viruses from person to person, and does not have a life or identity of its own.
I think that Gene is mistaken and confused. He's an anthropologist, but I don't see any sign that he has an understanding of cultural evolution. This puts him low on my list of critics that are worth bothering to address.



  1. "He seems to want to act as though the 'gene' revolution of the 1960s and 1970s never happened."

    No, I just had to live with the fact that the genes eye view just simply did not and does not apply to my research. Sadly, I am a front and center theoretical evolutionary biologist. It is pretty clear to me that if it doesn't work for me something is wrong with it.

    As for memes, I actually have thought up a use for the word that is related to a topic I have not gotten to yet. That is, to the extent that we can consider an idea or what are in common usage called a memes to be an individual that uses humans as their environment then meme is as good a term as any. This, however, is VERY different than Dawkin's effort to force cultural inheritance to be particulate. So, in the sense that Dawkin's intended the word meme I will stand by my statement that you quote above.

  2. Hi, Charles! Every model has "something wrong with it" - since models are, by their nature, simplifications of reality. If your criterion rejects all models, your criterion is pretty strict.

    You propose the term "meme" refers to what I call "cultural creatures" (see my articles here titled "cultural creatures", "Why no cultural creatures in academia?" and "cultural organisms"). Meme enthusiasts do sometimes liken memes to viruses - but IMO, they are better liked to genes (which can be in viruses or other types of organism). Your proposal goes against a long tradition in memetics - as you note.

    Have you tried steelmanning the terms "gene", "genetics", "genome", "genotype", etc? It would be an interesting discovery if they were useless, misleading, or wrong - but, frankly, you don't seem to have tried very hard for a sympathetic interpretation. E.g. why can't "genetics" be the science of heredity, "gene" be a bit of heritable information, etc.

  3. "with memes saturating popular culture and the news"

    No. People are doing the saturating. People in sweatshops, paid to post manipulative comments wherever issues critical to cultural progress are being discussed. They are called "astroturfers", and they are vicars of memetics. They are not evidence of memes, any more than religious vicars are evidence of gods.

    What made Charles Darwin revolutionary was that he took a phenomenon -- the origin of forms of life -- that was deeply intertwined with philosophy, and described in entirely in terms of single causation. A single causation requires a physical mechanism to be a complete theory, and in searching for it, scientists discovered DNA and the genes it contains.

    Nowadays, however, at least partly because of Richard Dawkins, nobody cares anymore about looking for single causation. Theorists slap on double causes like hotcakes, and as long as they don't involve religion it's okay.

    Darwin didn't spectacularly recant his religion; he simply realized that it can't describe or explain anything because it isn't grounded in reality. Nowadays, however, reality is merely an inconvenience that can be brushed aside with "quantum" hocus-pocus. Instead of the time-honored principle of discarding everything fantastic qua sit detestet, which has allowed huge advances in scientific knowledge, today's scientific elites are content with the wildest flights of nonsense as long as it isn't religious.

  4. "memes" are a shortcut, a way to deny millennia of human thought. Producing a lazy Anglo-American instant bullshit culture of fashion icons. Study philosophy. Study the classics. No you are too lazy, and "memes" are your excuse. What was Immanuel Kant's "meme"? Not bullet-point cheat notes to pass an exam, what did he actually say? You don't know.