Monday, 9 November 2015

Narrow memetics

When I got involved with memetics I think that people had previously used the term "memetics" to refer to the study of memes. It was more-or-less a synonym for "cultural evolution".

One of the concrete proposals I made was that the split between genetics and evolutionary theory be extended to cultural evolution - with memetics mostly studying how memes mutate and recombine. Since most of the differences between organic and cultural realms lie in the area, there needs to be a bit of a split between memetics and genetics - whereas most of the other the areas of evolutionary theory apply to both domains.

I started promoting the idea that the split between evolution and genetics should be extended into the cultural domain seriously in 2013 - with articles like these:

The idea was partly intended as a marketing move for memetics. Academia has largely opted for the term 'cultural evolution'. However, according to this terminological scheme, most of the actual differences between the dynamics of the organic and cultural realms lie in the genetics/memetics divide. Memetic mutations and recombination take place inside brains - rather than inside cells - and so there are expanded opportunities for more complex dynamics. Most of the alleged difference between the dynamics of the organic and cultural realms are either differences between memetics and genetics, fairly direct consequences of those differences, or are not really differences at all - once symbiology has been properly taken into account. Differences that turn out to be insignificant include Lamarckian inheritance, degree of reticulation, directed mutations and intelligent selection.

This narrative also helps to make sense of the delayed adoption of memetics. In the organic realm evolutionary theory was discovered in the 1800s, while genetics didn't really have its own departments until the 1930s. Assuming that the study of cultural evolution lags behind the study of evolution in the organic realm would predict that memetics will similarly lag behind the study of cultural evolution - an observation that seems to accord well with the facts.

Another thing I use this narrow version of memetics for is to disarm critics. For example, critics sometimes assert that memetics doesn't explain do a good job of predicting why some memes are fitter than other ones. I sometimes reply to this that this isn't the job of memetics - any more than it is the job of genetics to explain why some genes are fitter than other ones. Just as genetics studies mutation and recombination, so memetics should study cultural mutation and recombination. Explaining why one bird's wing works better than another one would be a job for an aeronautical expert - not a geneticist. Similarly a memeticist can reasonably respond that the reason why one bunch of aeroplane memes has won over another bunch of aeroplane memes isn't really part of their field of study. It should be added that some expanded versions of memetics do get into this topic. Applied memetics, population memetics and memetic engineering spring to mind as memetics-related areas that actually do make predictions concerning meme fitnesses.

Currently I think of the narrow version of memetics described in this post as being one of my innovations in the field. However expanding the meme/gene split into a memetics/genetics split seems like a rather obvious idea - and I might not be the first one to take it seriously. In which case my role will have been to popularize the idea.

I don't have much feedback about the merits of this 'narrow' version of memetics. Is it the future of memetics? Or is it a cut-down version of the original vision that just irritates other practitioners?


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