Monday, 1 September 2014

Why we need memetics in academia

Academia has mostly shunned memetics so far. Instead of memetics, one corner of academia has embraced the closely-related theories of Boyd and Richerson.

Of all the theories of cultural evolution that sprung up in the 1980s and 1990s, Boyd and Richerson's ideas were probably the second closest to memetics. It would have been a bit better if William Durham's work "Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity" had been more influential. Among its other virtues, this book actually endorsed and used the meme terminology. However, Boyd and Richerson kept plugging away at the topic over a long period of time producing more papers than any of the other teams involved.

Boyd and Richerson's ideas are pretty close to memetics. If you look at my most recent analysis of the differences, many are differences in emphasis - rather than serious technical disagreements.

While it's good to see at least some understanding of cultural evolution in academia, Boyd and Richerson's cultural evolution seems to be a poor substitute for memetics. To me it seems like a feeble and watered down version of the real thing. The revolutionary zeal of memetics is replaced by a "softly-softly" approach. The neat and simple terminology of memetics is discarded and replaced by wordy and ugly terminology - much of which seem destined to never catch on. The deep relationship between cultural and organic evolution are replaced by a bunch of muddled ideas about how different these processes are. Memetics is more symbiosis aware. It is just better - in most of the ways that matter.

Memetics has brought us memetic engineering, memetic algorithms, memetic hitchhiking and cultural kin selection. It is important to have ideas as useful and important as these properly represented in academia.

Memetics should be the name for cultural equivalent of genetics. We additionally need a cultural equivalent of ontogeny. The proposal that we need a cultural equivalent of evolutionary theory seems much more dubious: Darwinian evolutionary theory applies to both the organic and the cultural realms. We should probably focus on generalizing Darwinism - rather than working on a culture-specific version of it.

One of the problems with Boyd and Richerson's influence on the field has been their hostility to memetics. Their critical articles have included:

  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (2000) Meme theory oversimplifies how culture changes;
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert, (2000) Memes: Universal Acid or Better Mouse Trap;
  • Richerson, Peter J., Boyd, Robert and Henrich, J, (2008) Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution;
These articles show that Richerson and Boyd never developed a sympathetic understanding of memetics, and have instead concentrated on attacking misconceptions associated with it. Of course, criticisms are welcome, but they are most helpful if they are based on sympathetic understanding. In this case, I'm not really seeing it.

At the moment, a proper understanding of memetics in academia still seems far off. There aren't enough existing workers or interested parties to make it happen. Instead, what we seem to be seeing is academics revisiting issues that memetics studied years ago, and reworking them while stripping out the meme terminology and its history. Prominent examples of that include the recent revival of the "Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis" and the treatment of memetics in recent books on the topic - such as: Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion and the 2011 edition of Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour - which cut out its chapter on memes.

This is rather disappointing. Historically speaking, evolutionary theory pre-dated genetics by about 60 years. Now we are seeing a similar scientific lag with cultural evolution and memetics. You would think that academics would be able to learn from history - but in this case, apparently, the lesson is going to take a while to sink in.

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