About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Podcast teaser: memetics!

By Massimo Pigliucci

In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast Julia and I will finally take on memes and their study, the field of memetics. Meme, as it will be recalled, is a term introduced by Richard Dawkins in the last chapter of his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was trying to establish the idea that Darwinian evolution is a universal, almost logically necessary phenomenon, if certain conditions are satisfied. Particularly, any time there is a sufficiently reliable replicating mechanism, a fitness function, and limited resources, evolution by natural selection occurs.
Dawkins, however, couldn’t point to exobiological examples to reinforce the idea of universal Darwinism, since we don’t know (yet?) of any extraterrestrial life. He then turned to cultural evolution, renamed “ideas” as “memes” (in direct analogy with genes), and voilĂ , the field of memetics was born.
The staunchest defender of memetics is Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine (you can find her recent article in the New York Times here), though the idea has also been warmly endorsed by Daniel Dennett, among others. Until recently, there was even a Journal of Memetics, but they closed shop, possibly because they discovered everything there was to discover about memes.
Serious questions can be raised about memes and memetics as a viable concept and field of inquiry. To begin with, how is this different from classical studies of gene-culture co-evolution, for instance those famously carried out in mathematically rigorous papers (as opposed to based on loose analogies) published by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman at Stanford in the 1970s and 80s? Second, what, exactly are memes, i.e. what is their ontological status? Third, how do memes compete with each other, and for what resources? Is it even possible to build a functional ecology of memes, without which the statement that the most fit memes are those that spread becomes an empty tautology? Julia and I will explore these and related issues during the podcast, and we will take up some of your questions on all things memetic.


  1. I thought that this was a dead issue already. In my view, the meme idea has blown out of proportion. It's a very catchy phrase to describe how ideas are spread, but there is no scientific ground to it. It doesn't make any specific prediction about anything.

  2. I think memes are a nice metaphor for units of culture, and questions of how they compete or what would be the best fit can be answered (at least in principle) in the context of how the brain works. I don't think it's too controversial to say that some kinds of explanations work better than others, Bruce Hood's book Supersense for example did a good job at exploring how the brain develops and what beliefs we form from that. I'd say you'd have a hard time convincing someone that rooms exist where everything is upside down. So in that respect it doesn't seem too much wrong with the idea, describing culture from the unit of culture's perspective fits nicely.

    Though in terms of universal Darwinism, its use in engineering and computer science would be a much easier sell.

  3. If memes existed, they'd need to apply to all social organisms, all of which have means of intra and/or inter group communication, all of which have a form of experience fed memories, some of which are arguably converted over time as heritable instincts, or as some call it, the inheritance of acquired variations; most of which are there to be "taught" to whatever progeny or initiate is ready for them. Unless memories and instincts compete in some way separate from the uses they are competitively put to, "memes" don't compete any more than ideas do.

  4. @Baron P: I don't really understand what you said.

    I'm particularly unsure about "...most of which..." and "...converted...".

    As for competition, isn't it enough to say a) beliefs inform actions, which are limited whenever ideas favor countervailing actions and/or b) (conscious) mental space and energy are limited?

    On an unrelated note, is there any ratio between the amount of time it takes to expound an idea and the amount of time it takes to reasonably refute it? Or does that depend too much on a) which assumptions a theory is able to latch onto and/or b) how hard it is to argue against individual sub-assumptions, with neither really predictable in abstract?

  5. Brian, instincts, which are in the main strategic actions or reactions, arguably rise from learned experience. But even if all instinctive strategies come from experience, the reverse will not be the case. Learning from experience has to continue, that in itself being an instinctive strategy.
    And that "learning" has to be passed on where needed one way or another - if not by inheritance then by culture. All culture, or cultural knowledge if you will, "exists"(or persists) through some form of memory device that will have a communicable function. If you want to call a memory device a meme, fine, but which one have you then found that can be separated out from all the others.
    Put another way, social animals that survive as a group by teaching previously learned strategies, through a combination of communication and example, have a culture that you can't separate out from biology.
    As someone else once said, memes as a human evolutionary “invention” is one of the silliest concepts that our present dominant culture ever had the misfortune to take seriously.

  6. I'm of the mind that "meme" doesn't pick out a coherent concept. To me, "meme" is just internet slang for "fad" or "popular x" (where x can be a video, comic, site, survey etc.).

  7. "All culture, or cultural knowledge if you will, "exists"(or persists) through some form of memory device that will have a communicable function...but which one have you then found that can be separated out from all the others."

    You mean that it is impossible to call a subset of culture meme and another subset non-meme, and also impossible to call all culture mimetic and then differentiate among components of a culture such that some elements belong to one meme, and some elements to another meme? That's my best understanding of what you mean.

    "Put another way, social animals that survive as a group by teaching previously learned strategies, through a combination of communication and example, have a culture that you can't separate out from biology."

    Well, if this bit truly has the same content as the above then I still don't understand because I do not see how this is putting the above "...another way..." It seems your second paragraph argues that culture cannot be divided into memes, while your third and fourth argue that culture can't be separated from biology.

    However I don't understand why for "memes" to denote something unique or meaningful culture would have to be separable from biology, nor why memes would have to be specific to humans (or where they are claimed to be specific to humans), nor why the word "invention" would be at all appropriate to describe them. "Phenomenon" would make more sense, I think, just as it would when describing other (purported) non-physical things such as "trances", "play", or "arachnophobia".

  8. I think there are circumstances under which a scientific theory of memetics could be produced, but at the moment, too much fundamental knowledge is missing. A key question for me concerns how memes are stored. We know a lot about language, of course, but I don't think memes can be identified with their linguistic representations -- at best, that would be somewhat like identifying genes only with their RNA transcriptions. We need to know more about the "DNA" of memes -- that is, the precise way memes are stored in brains.

    Still, I think your claim, gil, that memetics makes no predictions is false. I think that memetics predicts lots of things, although those things are mostly quite obvious. For example, memetics predicts that memorable ideas will spread more quickly than less memorable ideas, and that moreover, sufficiently memorable ideas will thrive even if they are outright dangerous to those who adopt and spread them. Perhaps that's still not "specific" enough, but it could be made more specific through quantification, which would be based on more detailed and complete knowledge about how memory works.

  9. Brian, Let me best answer you by borrowing some commentary from another blog that I've just googled:

    Posted on: October 24, 2006 11:48 AM, by Mike

    1.The meme concept is vitalistic. The meme concept implies that information is separate from the organism, in the same way, some think the mind is divorced from the brain (and rest of the body). Biological structures contain information, but are not separate from it (e.g., DNA and maternal effects, alterations during transcription and translation, etc.). Where exactly is the meme? Humanity is not a giant server onto which software is loaded. In other words, 'information' in the biological context is not independent of the organism (the computer geeks never remember that thingees called computers actually run the software).
    2. The information of a meme is not context independent. Two people with the same meme ("Bush is a good man") can react in completely different ways. A Republican, upon hearing this, will fall to his knees and abase himself before his personal savior. A Democrat will project vomitous fluids. The effects and acquisition of ideas do not appear to be independent of the other ideas held by the subject. Once again, what exactly is the nature of the meme?"

    There's more, but I think my objections to the concept that memes carry information separate from the organism has been reinforced, if not said better.

  10. Of course books and Rosetta stones carry information separate from the organism, but they don't evolve or replicate, and are of little help to bacteria.

  11. Let me add further and more seriously that Dawkins didn't see memes as something to be made use of by bacteria (or snails and such other lower forms of life) because they don't have anything like the right sort of cultures.

  12. "The meme concept is vitalistic."

    How? Humans have thoughts and do their human thing, and patterns emerge within their societies regarding the spread of ideas. I don't see how memes would be more of a problem than other abstractions like "sneezing" and "arrogance". Couldn't you ask of any species "where is the species", and say of some viruses "it does not have the information needed to reproduce"?

    "The effects and acquisition of ideas do not appear to be independent of the other ideas held by the subject."

    Isn't that like saying the effect of a species' characteristics, e.g. a cheetah with high speed and low strength, means that its members can't live in some environments due to the unsuitable prey there? 'The effects and acquisition of creatures by environments do not appear to be independent of the other species held by the environment.' It seems irrelevant.

    "...what exactly is the nature of the meme?"

    I am not familiar with the subject, but I imagine it would be the idea "Bush is a good man", as it created offspring in Republicans and those offspring had offspring in other Republicans, provided the change in the idea each generation was below some threshold and larger than nothing (so natural selection could work), such that the offspring would face selective pressures as each version of the idea would have to coexist with all other ideas held by the host (including very similar ones) or fail to spread to that host, and if at least some offspring are not created in people the idea/meme probably hasn't helped the survival of the general idea/meme. Something like that.

  13. The thing about memes is you never know when you've had one too many.

  14. The ontological status of memes is a real problem for me. These very literal translations of biological evolution in to cultural evolution, such as selectionism or memetics, need some fundamental unit of cultural transmission ("culture trait," "meme") in order to escape the problem of triviality or tautology--an analog for genes. Yet one does not look inside a gene and find yet more genes, nor are genes composed of the interactions of other genes. One cannot say the same about memes. How many memes comprise a meme like agriculture for example?
    In many cases in explaining cultural phenomena, it seems that memes are going to be both the thing-to-be-explained and the explanation, the cause and the effect. For some approaches that's not a problem, but if the intent of memes is to "science-up" the study of culture and history, there needs to be a little more.
    Unless the concept of meme has some sort of reality, or at least a non-vacuous definition, I can't see memetics being particularly useful. I am not sure what insights it could bring--beyond, of course, the observation that there are usually reasons that some cultural phenomena survive through time and others don't (which, as insights go, lacks a certain...something).

  15. I'd like to hear a future episode on cultural evolution that looks at the more technical work of Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman and Boyd & Richerson, and William Wimsatt rather than the more popular work of Dawkins, Dennett, and Blackmore. E.g., the sort of stuff discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on cultural evolution: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-cultural/

    Seems to me that the gene analogy should be taken seriously, including a genotype/phenotype distinction, where the gene/meme correspondence is an "internalist" representation (in the terms used in the podcast--I don't think mental representations can be understood in purely internalist terms since the causal relationships to their use are also important). The phenotype is then the particular behavior, institutions, processes, etc. that are expressed socially.


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