Category Archives: Evolution

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Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators

FLASH! The active brain-hopping meme is to culture as the preformationist germ seed is to biology. More in a later post.

While these posts have been quite critical of Dennett’s use of the concept of information, that should not be taken to mean that I see no use for such a concept. There is, of course, the technical usage established by Shannon and Weaver, but that is of limited use in these discussions. The challenge is to make use a less specialized, indeed an informal, concept. I intend to do so by identifying memetic information with the formal concept of data, as employed in computer science, and in particular with the concept of a parameter.

The Wikipedia defines parameter in this way:

In computer programming, a parameter is a special kind of variable, used in a subroutine to refer to one of the pieces of data provided as input to the subroutine. These pieces of data are called arguments. An ordered list of parameters is usually included in the definition of a subroutine, so that, each time the subroutine is called, its arguments for that call can be assigned to the corresponding parameters.

Memes are arguments in the sense of that definition. The parameters for which they are values are components of “subroutines” in the mind, where, for the purposes of this discussion, the mind is considered to be a rich and sophisticated computational device whose characteristics are unspecified. Continue reading

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How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?

First, in asking THAT question I do not intend a bit of cutesy intellectual cleverness: Oh Wow! Let’s get the meme meme to examine it’s own history. My purpose would be just as well served by examining, say, the history of the term “algorithm” or the term “deconstruction,” both originally technical terms that have more or less entered the general realm. I’m looking at the history of the meme concept because I’ve just been reading Jeremy Burman’s most interesting 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (PDF).

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Second, as far as I can tell, no version of cultural evolution is ready to provide an account of that history that is appreciably better than the one Burman himself supplies, and that account is straight-up intellectual history. In Burman’s account (p. 75) Dawkins introduced the meme concept in 1976

as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.

That’s a considerable change in meaning. To account for that change Burman examines several texts in which various people explicate the meme concept and attributes the changes in meaning to their intentions. Thus he says (p. 94):

To be clear: I am not suggesting that the making of the active meme was the result of a misunderstanding. No one individual made a copying mistake; there was no “mutation” following continued replication. Rather, the active meaning came as a result of the idea’s reconstruction: actions taken by individuals working in their own contexts. Thus: what was Dennett’s context?

And later (p. 98):

The brain is active, not the meme. What’s important in this conception is the function of structures, in context, not the structures themselves as innate essences. This even follows from the original argument of 1976: if there is such a thing as a meme, then it cannot exist as a replicator separately from its medium of replication.

Burman’s core argument this is a relatively simple one. Dawkins proposed the meme concept in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, but the concept didn’t take hold in the public mind. That didn’t happen until Douglas Hofsadter and Daniel Dennett recast the concept in their 1982 collection, The Mind’s I. They took a bunch of excerpts from The Selfish Gene, most of them from earlier sections of the book rather than the late chapter on memes, and edited them together and (pp. 81-82)

presented them as a coherent single work. Al- though a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.

It’s this re-presentation of the meme concept that began to catch-on with the public. Subsequently a variety of journalist accounts further spread the concept of the meme as a virus of the mind.

Why? On the face of it it would seem that the virus of the mind was a more attractive and intriguing concept whereas Dawkins’ original more metaphorical conception. Just why that should have been the case is beside the point. It was.

All I wish to do in this note is take that observation and push it a bit further. When people read written texts they do so with the word meanings existing in their minds, which aren’t necessarily the meanings that exist in the minds of the authors of those texts. In the case of the meme concept, the people reading The Selfish Gene didn’t even have a pre-existing meaning for the term, as Dawkins introduced and defined it in that book. The same would be true for the people who first encountered the term in The Mind’s I and subsequent journalistic accounts. Continue reading

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Information WTF 2: The Candy Itself

I’ve already written one post in which I express skepticism about information-talk: Culture Memes Information WTF! I fear, alas, that it’s time for another. It’s not that I’m not aware of the concept of information, or that I haven’t made use of the concept, both the Shannon-Weaver technical concept and the more informal concept. But I think information talk is tricky.

As I said in that earlier post, a signal can be said to contain information only with respect to a system that can read and write that information. It’s one thing to talk about information when you have some technical understanding of the read-write mechanism, which seems to be the case in biology. But where such understanding is weak and vaporous, as it is in the case of human culture (the brain is more of a mystery than not) information talk is dangerous. Discussions of cultural evolution over the past quarter of a century or so have, for the most part, been blissfully uninformed by the cognitive and neurosciences and so, I fear, information talk has been a device for avoiding problems rather than solving them.

I get the sense that such talk is based on an underlying notion of pushing bits through a tube—cognitive linguists talk about the conduit metaphor. The nature of the tube doesn’t matter; its size, shape, substance, are all irrelevant. All that matters is the bits.

Language, for example, doesn’t work like that. All that goes through the tube is a physical signal—a sound wave, a visual signal (written or inscribed marks in the case of writing, gestures in the case of sign language), or a tactile signal (e.g. Braille). The meaning doesn’t go through the tube. The speaker’s intended meaning stays inside the speaker’s head. The listener constructs his or her own meaning according to his or her own perceptual and conceptual resources. In many cases these two meanings are congruent, especially in routine and relatively simple matters. There are, however, many cases where the two meanings ARE NOT congruent. In those cases congruence may be achieved through back-and-forth conversational negotiation. But not always, negotiations may fail. Continue reading

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Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology

Terminology is important, and pesky. I am in need of at least two terms, terms for which I have a technical use. I also dislike coining new terms. I would much prefer to use existing terms, even if it requires a bit of refitting here and there. Here are three proposals, the first of which is familiar to you, followed by brief discussions of each:

meme: the observable properties of objects, events, or processes that are culturally active; the cultural analog to the biological gene.

substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. memes) are said to inhere.

ideotype: the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. Ideotypes are mental constructs arising in minds as brains engage with memes. Continue reading

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The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong

On the face of it, Dennett and I have very different views about cultural evolution. To be sure, we both believe that Dawkins’s initial insight is valid: that culture is an evolutionary regime unto itself in which the benefits of cultural success accrue to cultural entities, not human individuals or populations. Where Dennett talks only of memes, I make an explicit distinction between memes and a cultural correlate of the phenotype (for which I have yet to adopt a term of art).

While Dennett allows memes to exist both in the external world and in the mind, most of his discussion is about memes in the mind moving from one mind to another. Indeed, I’d be curious to know what Dennett thinks exists in the mind apart from memes; of what, for example, does the neonate’s mind consist of? By contrast, I insist that memes exist in the external world, as observable (and memorable) properties of objects, events, and processes. The cultural correlates of the biological phenotype emerge as mental processes in brains as those brains engage with memes.

We thus have rather, if not utterly, different views about cultural evolution. As I have been thinking these things through, however, I have begun to suspect that our difference is more in how we assign roles in the process of cultural evolution to the mechanisms of human thought and action than in our conception of those mechanisms (though we no doubt have our differences there as well). And that’s the line I wish to investigate in this post. I will concentrate that investigation on a single essay:

From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms [PDF], in Evolution and Culture. Stephen C. Levinson and Pierre Jaisson, eds. The MIT Press: 2006.

All quotations are from that paper. Continue reading

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Bleg: Do Memes Matter to You?

For those doing or training to do academic research on linguistic and/or cultural evolution: Do memes matter to you?

I’ve got the impression that the issue that I’ve been chewing on recently, the appropriate account of memes of, if you prefer, the cultural analog of the biological gene, is mostly a theoretical one and has, so far, little bearing on empirical issues. However, I’ve also got the impression that most of the work on cultural evolution in the past decade or so has been empirical, either analysis of real-world data of one kind or another, or running simulations, and that the appropriate definition of meme doesn’t matter. You count what you can count. What matters is the quality of the raw data and the quality of the analysis.

If that is so, who cares about memes?

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How the Meme became a Pest

Since I’ve been posting a lot about memes recently, and from a POV in opposition to the most prevalent memetic doctrines, I thought I’d post a link to this article (full text is downloadable):

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman. The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999. Perspectives on Science. Spring 2012, Vol. 20, No. 1, Pages 75-104
Posted Online January 19, 2012.
(doi:10.1162/POSC_a_00057)
© 2012 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abstract: When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaning-construction in scholarly communication more generally.

We might, of course, see Burman’s argument as an illustration of how the intentional products of brilliant minds, in this particular case, Dawkins’ original 1976 conception, undergo chaotic if not random, variation and selection in the larger cultural arena. Burman lays the original variation and popularization at the feet of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett and their 1981 edited collection, The Mind’s I, which was more popular in its time that Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

In The Mind’s I, Hofstadter and Dennett presented a new version of the meme-metaphor. To construct it, they selected harmonious themes from across The Selfsh Gene and presented them as a coherent single work. Although a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.

This omission could perhaps be forgiven. The collection was “composed,” after all. But, in the case of the meme, there is more to its composition than a simple departure from the original. The new version provides no clear indication that changes had been made, such as to shift the spelling and punctuation from UK to US standard; or that, in several instances, material had been lifted mid-paragraph and re-presented out of context. Indeed, comments are included from the original—without any editorial remarks—that misrepresent the whole as a coherent unit.

Whoops!

And the rest, as they say, is history. You’ll have to read the full article to get the blow-by-bloody-blow.

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What’s a meme? Where I got my conception

In the past few years I have settled into a conception of memes (that is, of the cultural analog to the biological gene) as properties of physical objects, events, and processes. If, for example, we’re talking of the spoked wheel, then certain of its discernible physical properties (such as its shape) have memetic function, but not the wheel itself. The wheel itself is simply a physical object, like a stone or a mountain. Similarly, the process of making a spoked wheel has memetic properties, and it is those properties to which apprentices attend as they learn the craft from a master wheelwright.

My immediate source of this concept is my friend, teacher, and colleague, the late David G. Hays. I don’t know where Hays himself got the idea. But I know he’d read Dawkins, so perhaps that’s where he got it.

We discussed the idea a bit in the 1990s, but only a bit. It didn’t loom large in our discussions. It was only after he’d died (in 1995) that I decided to work on the idea, though I forget just what prompted this.

Once I made that decision I started my reading in the one place Hays had written on the idea, a relatively short passage in the final chapter of The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993), which he’d developed while teaching an online course on the history of technology through The New School. I have reproduced that passage below.

The term “rank” is one we used over the years in talking about the ever-increasing complexity of culture. Roughly speaking, by rank 1 we mean the cultures pre-literate societies. Rank 2 emerges with the advent of literacy while Rank 3 is what first emerged in the West in the Early Modern period (aka the Renaissance). Rank 4 is where we are now. Our basic account can be found in The Evolution of Cognition (1990), though there’s a preliminary version in my dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978). You can find a handful of papers, plus an overview, at Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society. Continue reading

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Stir-fry Memetics

Tyler Cowen has a post at Foreign Policy, The Cookbook Theory of Economics: Why Chinese and Mexican dominate the market. Here’s a paragraph Cowen high-lighted on his own blog, Marginal Revolution:
Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I’ve seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers — other cooks — be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they’re easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.
Yes. Why not? It’s a good paragraph. I like this passage as well, which precedes it:
I recall a trip a few years ago to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I was surprised to find that virtually all restaurants were Chinese or Indian. They were excellent, but still I wanted some local food. In a fit of desperation, I paid the maid to make me a Tanzanian dish in the hotel kitchen, a kind of improvised room service, with a large tip attached. I ended up with a sort of porridge that looked quite simple but tasted delicious. As I was enjoying the meal, it occurred to me that writing down the recipe wouldn’t do much good, as I wouldn’t be able to reproduce it at home. The grain — perhaps a maize flour or millet — was unfamiliar, and the rest of the local ingredients were fresher and more delicious than anything I could easily get my hands on at home in Fairfax, Virginia. A recipe like “cook grain; add water and salt” wouldn’t get me far, not even with Whole Foods at my disposal.
Continue reading
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The Memetic Changeover: When and Why?

This is going to be quick, I hope, and dirty, I’m sure. What I’m up to is taking the first crude steps toward an argument about why putting memes in the head makes culture unintelligible.

Dawkins’ central insight, and the only reason to think about memes at all, is that, properly understood, properly cultural evolution is a regime where the beneficiary of successful cultural change (see my post, Roles in Cultural Interaction) is some kind of cultural entity rather than the organism that exhibits, uses, creates, that cultural entity. Call this the memetic regime. In gene-culture coevolution, by contrast, it is the organism that benefits from successful cultural change.

That is, in the regime of gene-culture coevolution, cultural inheritance is simply mode of behavioral inheritance that is different from, and more rapid, than ‘ordinary’ gene-mediated behavioral inheritance. All of animal culture is inherited in this regime. And this regime remains active in human life as well, though it is swamped by the memetic regime.

The question I’m asking is when, and why, in human prehistory did the memetic regime emerge? Stone tools emerge in the archeological record roughly 2.5 million years ago. Finely crafted hand axes–if that, indeed, is what they are–show up 1.5 million years ago. The shapes of these hand axes are conserved over 100s of thousands of years. They don’t change.

On the one hand, these artifacts indicate a level of craftsmanship beyond that we see in any animal. But they don’t show evidence of rapid and directed change. Do they exist fully within the regime of gene-cultural co-evolution? The question is not, of course, simply about the tools and axes themselves, but about the entire way of life in which they are embedded.

I don’t, of course, know the answer to that question. But if they are pre-memetic, then when did the memetic regime emerge, and why?

One obvious inflection point would be the emergence of language as we know it, which seems to have happened between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. If that’s when the change happened, why? What is it about language that facilitated that change? Continue reading