Category Archives: Evolution

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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

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Culture Memes Information WTF!

I’ve been thinking a lot about information recently, mostly as a consequence of reading Dan Dennett on memetics. I’m uncomfortable with his usage, and similar ones, and I can’t quite figure out why. Let me offer two passages, and then some comments.

The first passage is from George Williams, a biologist. It’s in a chapter from a book edited by John Brockman, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution:

Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter. I address this problem in my 1992 book, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges. These two domains will never be brought together in any kind of the sense usually implied by the term “reductionism.” You can speak of galaxies and particles of dust in the same terms, because they both have mass and charge and length and width. You can’t do that with information and matter. Information doesn’t have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise, matter doesn’t have bytes. You can’t measure so much gold in so many bytes. It doesn’t have redundancy, or fidelity, or any of the other descriptors we apply to information. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately, in their own terms.

The gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message. Maintaining this distinction between the medium and the message is absolutely indispensable to clarity of thought about evolution.

Just the fact that fifteen years ago I started using a computer may have had something to do with my ideas here. The constant process of transferring information from one physical medium to another and then being able to recover that same information in the original medium brings home the separability of information and matter. In biology, when you’re talking about things like genes and genotypes and gene pools, you’re talking about information, not physical objective reality. They’re patterns.

I was also influenced by Dawkins’ “meme” concept, which refers to cultural information that influences people’s behavior. Memes, unlike genes, don’t have a single, archival kind of medium. Consider the book Don Quixote: a stack of paper with ink marks on the pages, but you could put it on a CD or a tape and turn it into sound waves for blind people. No matter what medium it’s in, it’s always the same book, the same information. This is true of everything else in the cultural realm. It can be recorded in many different media, but it’s the same meme no matter what medium it’s recorded in.

It seems to me that that is more or less how the concept of information is used in many discussions. It’s certainly how Dennett tends to use it. Here’s a typical passage (it’s the fifth and last footnote in From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms):

There is considerable debate among memeticists about whether memes should be defined as brain-structures, or as behaviors, or some other presumably well-anchored concreta, but I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information worth copying (however embodied) since it is the information that determines how much design work or R and D doesn’t have to be re-done. That is why a wagon with spoked wheels carries the idea of a wagon with spoked wheels as well as any mind or brain could carry it.

Here I can’t help but think that Dennett’s pulling a fast one. Information has somehow become reified in a way that has the happy effect of relieving Dennett of the task of thinking about the actual mechanisms of cultural evolution. That in turn has the unhappy effect of draining his assertion of meaning. In what way does a wagon with spoked wheels carry any idea whatsoever, much less the idea of itself? Continue reading

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Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!

I want to look at two recent pieces by Daniel Dennett. One is a formal paper from 2009, The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXIV, pp. 1-7, 2009). The other is an informal interview from January of 2013, The Normal Well-Tempered Mind. What interests me is how Dennett thinks about computation in these two pieces.

In the first piece Dennett seems to be using the standard-issue computational model/metaphor that he’s been using for decades, as have others. This is the notion of a so-called von Neumann machine with a single processor and a multi-layer top-down software architecture. In the second and more recent piece Dennett begins by asserting that, no, that’s not how the brain works, I was wrong. At the very end I suggest that the idea of the homuncular meme may have served Dennett as a bridge from the older to the more recent conception.

Words, Applets, and the Digital Computer

As everyone knows, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” as the cultural analogue to the biological gene, or alternatively, a virus. Dennett has been one of the most enthusiastic academic proponents of this idea. In his 2009 Cold Spring Harbor piece Dennett concentrates his attention on words as memes, perhaps the most important class of memes. Midway through the paper tells he us that “Words are not just like software viruses; they are software viruses, a fact that emerges quite uncontroversially once we adjust our understanding of computation and software.”

Those first two phrases, before the comma, assert a strong identification between words and software viruses. They are the same (kind of) thing. Then Dennett backs off. They are the same, providing of course, that “we adjust our understanding of computation and software.” Just how much adjusting is Dennett going to ask us to do?

This is made easier for our imaginations by the recent development of Java, the software language that can “run on any platform” and hence has moved to something like fixation in the ecology of the Internet. The intelligent composer of Java applets (small programs that are downloaded and run on individual computers attached to the Internet) does not need to know the hardware or operating system (Mac, PC, Linux, . . .) of the host computer because each computer downloads a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), designed to translate automatically between Java and the hardware, whatever it is.

The “platform” on which words “run” is, of course, the human brain, about which Dennett says nothing beyond asserting that it is there (a bit later). If you have some problems about the resemblance between brains and digital computers, Dennett is not going to say anything that will help you. What he does say, however, is interesting.

Notice that he refers to “the intelligent composer of Java applets.” That is, the programmer who writes those applets. Dennett knows, and will assert later on, that words are not “composed” in that way. They just happen in the normal course of language use in a community. In that respect, words are quite different from Java applets. Words ARE NOT explicitly designed; Java applets ARE. Those Java applets seem to have replaced computer viruses in Dennett’s exposition, for he never again refers to them, though they (viruses) figured emphatically in the topic sentence of this paragraph.

The JVM is “transparent” (users seldom if ever encounter it or even suspect its existence), automatically revised as needed, and (relatively) safe; it will not permit rogue software variants to commandeer your computer.

Computer viruses, depending on their purpose, may also be “transparent” to users, but, unlike Java applets, they may also commandeer your computer. And that’s not nice. Earlier Dennett had said:

Our paradigmatic memes, words, would seem to be mutualists par excellence, because language is so obviously useful, but we can bear in mind the possibility that some words may, for one reason or another, flourish despite their deleterious effects on this utility.

Perhaps that’s one reason Dennett abandoned his talk of computer viruses in favor of those generally helpful Java applets. Continue reading