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Q: Why is the Dawkins Meme Idea so Popular?

A: Because it is daft.

I believe there are two answers to that question. For most people it’s convenient. That requires one explanation, which I’ll run through first.

For some people, however, memetics is more than convenient. Some, including Dawkins himself and his philosophical acolyte, Dan Dennett, use it as a way of explaining religion. In that role the meme idea is attractive because it is, or has evolved into, an egregiously bad idea, one almost as irrational as the religious ideas whose popularity it is supposed to explain away. By analogy to an argument Dawkins himself has made about religion, that makes memetics the perfect vehicle for the affirmation of materialist faith.

But I don’t want to go there yet. Let’s work into it.

Ordinary Memetics

When Dawkins first proposed the idea in The Selfish Gene (1976), it wasn’t a bad idea—nor even a new one. Ted Cloak, among others, got there first, but not with the catchy name. Having worked hard to conceptualize the gene as a replicator, Dawkins was looking for  another set of examples. and coined the term “meme” as a replicator for culture. The word, and the idea, caught on and soon talk of memes was flying all over the place.

I suspect that the spread of computer technology is partially responsible for the cultural climate in which the meme idea found a home. Computers ‘level’ everything into bits: words, pictures, videos, numbers, computer programs of all kinds, simulations of explosions, traffic flow, moon landings, everything becomes bits: bits, bits, and more bits. The meme concept simply ‘levels’ all of culture—songs, recipes, costumes, paintings, hazing rituals, etc.—into the uniform substance of memes.

What is culture? Memes.

Simple and useful. As long as you don’t try to push it very far.


In his original exposition Dawkins was a bit equivocal as to whether or not memes existed inside the brain or outside in the external world. Thus at one point he refers to one copy ‘Auld Lang Syne’ existing in his brain and other copies existing in a song book (p. 194). This issue became a matter of debate among the relatively small community of thinkers who were attempting to develop an intellectually rigorous theory of cultural evolution. Some of us were known as externalists while others were internalists.

I was and am an externalist. I’ve stated my position at length in two papers published in the mid-1990s (Culture as an Evolutionary Arena and Culture’s Evolutionary Landscape) and more recently in an extensive series of notes, The Evolution of Human Culture. I have no intention of rehearsing those arguments here. But I want to make one point, and that is about human language.

Why Memes Cannot Flit from Brain to Brain

As linguists have known for some time, the relationship between a word’s meaning and its sound (or written appearance) is an arbitrary one. The word “apple” does not look, smell, sound, feel, or taste like an apple, nor does the word “god” look, smell, sound, feel, or taste like a god. And so forth through the vast majority of the words in any language’s wordstock.

The arbitrary relationship between the signifier (a word’s sound or visible appearance in print or gesture) and the signified (a word’s meaning) is thus effectively an uncrossable barrier between what’s inside people’s heads and what’s outside in the physical world. There is no way that memes can hitch a ride on language and thereby move from one brain to another. Images aren’t much better. A man nailed to a cross is visible to all, but you need language to convey the idea that one particular man who was nailed to a cross is a divine being.

But that’s what Dawkins and Dennett and their followers want of memes. They talk of them as homuncular beings that live inside people’s heads and move about from one person to another, taking root in brain after brain. Memes, like Dawkinsian ‘selfish’ genes, have their own interests which are independent of the interests of their hosts. People become possessed by memes and memes guide their behavior. In particular, religious memes take over a mind and cause the person to believe irrational ideas and to engage in activity that is often against the person’s own self interest. But it’s in the interest of the memes, who care only to spread from person to person.

Now, when Dawkins talks of selfish genes and of genes having interests of their own, he’s being metaphorical, and he knows that. But he also knows how to cash out the metaphors in the technical language of molecular biology and genetics, as do many other people. So the metaphorical talk is a convenient shorthand that can be dropped whenever precision is needed.

Not so the homuncular meme. It too is tricked out in metaphorical language. But no one knows how to cash the metaphor out in the language of neuroscience or cognitive psychology.

Dawkins has suggested computer viruses as an analogy (Viruses of the Mind, 1991). But those viruses do not spontaneously arise in an ecology of communicating computers. They’re designed by programmers living outside the ecology, programmers who understand how computers work and who use their design knowledge to design and code viruses which they then insert, from ‘above’ (in effect using Dennettian skyhook cranes), into the computer ecology. In the case of memes there is no such designer outside the system, unless, perhaps, you were to designate a god as the designer. And that is exactly what Dawkins does not want to do. The computer virus analogy is thus an utter failure.

Faith of Our Fathers: We Believe Because it is Absurd

And that, I’m arguing, is what makes it so very attractive as an account of human thought and culture and of religion in particular. That and one other thing: It’s lodged firmly in a reductionalist and materialist ontology. The point of memetics is that it does not require some mysterious mind stuff nor any spooky spirit beings. It’s all made of good old familiar atoms and energy. Nothing more.

In theory, of course, in terms of intellectual commitment. In terms of achieved intellectual demonstration memetics is, as I’ve argued, a mess. Hence, by an argument Dawkins makes about religion, that makes memetics the perfect vehicle for the affirmation of materialist faith.

Here’s one of the arguments Dawkins makes about religion in Viruses of the Mind. After developing the meme idea by analogy with computer viruses, he does a bit of this this and that. Then he introduce Zahavi’s handicap principle from evolutionary biology, for which the peacock’s tail is a paradigmatic example. The male’s tail is flamboyantly visible, large, and relatively heavy. It increases the male’s vulnerability to predation and thereby serves the male as a way of advertising its fitness to females. A male who can survive and thrive with THAT burden must be fit indeed.

Here’s how Dawkins applies the handicap principle to religion:

The premise of Zahavi’s idea is that natural selection will favor skepticism among females (or among recipients of advertising messages generally). The only way for a male (or any advertiser) to authenticate his boast of strength (quality, or whatever is is) is to prove that it is true by shouldering a truly costly handicap — a handicap that only a genuinely strong (high quality, etc.) male could bear. It may be called the principle of costly authentication. And now to the point. Is it possible that some religious doctrines are favored not in spite of being ridiculous but precisely because they are ridiculous? Any wimp in religion could believe that bread symbolically represents the body of Christ, but it takes a real, red-blooded Catholic to believe something as daft as the transubstantiation. If you believe that you can believe anything, and (witness the story of Doubting Thomas) these people are trained to see that as a virtue.

Let me translate that last sentence:

Any materialist wimp could believe that brains really represent visual objects, but it takes a real, red-blooded Reductionist to believe something as daft as memes flitting about from brain to brain. If you believe that you can believe anything, and (witness their faith in the coming singularity) these people are trained to see that as a virtue.

So, why are these folks allowed to get away with this nonsense? On the one hand, we have no widely affirmed model of human belief, thought, and communication. We have lots of competing models and theories, many of which provide non-trivial accounts of some aspect of human mental and cultural life. But none of them are comprehensive and none is head and shoulders above the others.

In that context memetics is just another idea. It may be a bit crazy, but then the idea that finally works is likely to be one that would seem a bit crazy to us here and now. Obviously we do think and communicate, ideas and practices sometimes do spread like wildfire, and religion is ubiquitous and powerful. There has to be some explanation for this.

Here’s a favorite dodge: Maybe this crazy memetics idea will somehow work out. Darwin didn’t know about genes, and look what happened with his idea. It worked out, didn’t it? Well, maybe memetics will too.

So, it’s easy for memetics to get its foot in the door. Once in, it reveals itself as the perfect vehicle for affirming materialism, and especially against religion.

Game Set Match

Q. E. D.

Signed, sealed and delivered, you’re ours!

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ICPhS phonetic capabilities satellite meeting – deadline extension

Re. The ICPhS phonetic capabilities satellite meeting, which has been previously advertised on this blog.
We have received a number of requests for late submissions, which we have granted, and as a result, feel it fair to have the same extension for everyone. Thus, if you would like to either submit something, or would like to redraft and resubmit your submission before the new deadline, you are advised that this is now:
 
1st March.
Thank you very much if you have already submitted a paper. What we’ve seen so far looks very exciting, and if you are happy with your paper, you obviously don’t need to do anything. We have previously advised some contributors that notifications of acceptance would appear before the end of February. This is of course now not possible, but we hope to keep the delay to as little as possible, hoping to deliver valuable feedback from the review process by mid-March.
Do no hesitate to contact hannah@ai.vub.ac.be with any further questions.
Here is the call for papers again, in case you missed it:
Call for papers
 
At this year’s International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Glasgow, there will be a special interest group on the Evolution of our phonetic capabilities. It will focus on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution and encourages work from different modalities too. The call for papers is here (satellite meeting 3) and pasted below:
The evolution of phonetic capabilities: causes, constraints and consequences
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. New techniques in computational and mathematical modelling, experimental paradigms, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and animal studies, as well as new archeological evidence, have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities.
This workshop requests contributions from researchers which address the emergence of our phonetic capabilities. We are interested in empirical evidence from models and experiments which explore evolutionary pressures causing the emergence of our phonetic capabilities, both in biological and cultural evolution, and the consequences biological constraints will have on processes of cultural evolution and vice versa. Contributions are welcome to cover not only the evolution of our physical ability to produce structured signals in different modalities, but also cognitive or functional processes that have a bearing on the emergence of phonemic inventories. We are also interested in contributions which look at the interaction between the two areas mentioned above which are often dealt with separately in the field, that is the interaction between physical constraints imposed by a linguistic modality, and cognitive constraints born from learning biases and functional factors, and the consequences this interaction will have on emerging linguistic systems and inventories.
Contributions must fit the same submission requirements on the main ICPhS 2015 call for papers page.
Contributions can be sent as an attachment to hannah@ai.vub.ac.be by 1st March 2015 (**extended**). Queries should be sent to the same address.
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Persister: A sci-fi novel about cultural evolution and academic funding

Someone has written a sci-fi space opera about a serial killer that targets researchers of cultural evolution which is also a satire on the state of academic funding systems.

That’s quite an action-packed sentence.

Persister: Space Funding Crisis I by Casey Hattrey is a short novel set in the 45th century about a cultural evolution researcher named Arianne. By this point, the decision process for academic funding takes so long that the only sensible option is to cryogenetically freeze yourself while you wait for the decision to come in. The cost of this, and the fierce competition for funding in a pan-galactic community, has made the Central Academic Funding Council Administration the most powerful force in the galaxy. Now, Arianne has been woken from chryo-sleep, not to be given a grant, but to investigate a series of gruesome murders. Someone has been killing the top researchers in the field of cultural evolution.

"In space, no one can hear you apply for funding"

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How Language Evolves Webcast

CARTA (Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny) are webcasting their free symposium on “How Language Evolves” on Friday, February 20th (1:00 – 5:30 pm PST), co-chaired by Roger Levy (UC San Diego) and David Perlmutter (UC San Diego).

How Language Evolves

 

The symposium addresses the question of how human language came to have the kind of structure it has today, focusing on three sources of evidence:

1) ways languages get new structure not present in the language of the previous generation(s) of speakers or signers;

2) what contrasts between new and mature languages reveal about how language evolves;

3) neuroscientific investigations of functional specialization for language in the human brain and its dependence on the linguistic input the language learner gets during cognitive development.

You can access the live webcast here:

http://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/how-language-evolves

 

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Tone and humidity

Does the weather effect the languages we speak?

This week, Caleb Everett, Damian Blasi and I have a paper out in PNAS (also available here) on the effects of humidity on the production and perception of lexical tone, and the subsequent predictions about the distribution of tone across the world.

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Map of humidity (lighter = more humid) with complex tone languages in red and non-complex tone languages in blue.

The basic principle behind studies of cultural evolution is that a selective pressure on communication can transform the structures of a language over time.  What we explore is whether speaking in dry environments exerts a pressure to avoid using sounds that are more difficult to produce or comprehend, leading to those sounds being selected against.

Edit: See also this FAQ page

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Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.1: Micro Evolution, Dawkins and Memes

It’s time I get back to my attempt to lay out a map of approaches to cultural evolution in a limited number of posts, say a half dozen or even less (in my first post I said three). This is the first of two or three posts in which I look at ideas of the microscale entities and processes. In this post I’ll take a close look at Dawkins’ concept of the meme as he laid it out in The Selfish Gene. In my next post or two I’ll lay out other positions while developing mine in the process.

Dawkins Defines the Meme

I’m going to take a close look at two paragraphs from the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene (Oxford 2006). First I’ll quote the paragraphs without interruption and commentary. Then I’ll repeat them, this time inserting my own comments after passages from Dawkins.

The book, of course, is not primarily about culture. It is about biology and argues a gene-centric view of evolution. In the process Dawkins abstracts from the biology and extracts two roles, that of replicator and that of vehicle. Genes play the replicator role and phenotypes play vehicle role. From a gene-centric point of view, the function of phenotypes is to carry genes from one generation to the next.

Have set this out in ten chapters, Dawkins then turns to culture in the eleventh chapter, where he introduces the meme in the replicator role in cultural evolution. The paragraphs we’re examining are on pages 192-193:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.

Dawkins says more about memes (the chapter runs from 189 to 201), but I’ll confine my commentary to those two chapters. Before I do that, however, I’d like to quote two short paragraphs from the end of the chapter (pp. 199-200):

However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.

We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.

That I believe is the core of Dawkins’ contribution, that the entity that directly benefits from cultural evolution is some cultural entity, not any individual human being, though the cultural entity is necessarily dependent on individual humans for its existence. Continue reading

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Tokyo Lectures in Language Evolution

This will certainly be of interest to rep typo readers. Info below:

We are pleased to announce that the Tokyo Lectures in Language Evolution will be held from the 2nd – 5th of April 2015 at the Komaba II Campus of the University of Tokyo. The event will bring together researchers from around the world to give an intensive series of courses and lectures introducing modern approaches to research on the origins and evolution of language.

Invited Speakers:

Registration Fees:

  • Faculty:        20,000JPY
  • Students:     Free

Please note, there are limited seats available so please register here to ensure your place.

Poster Session:

The event will host a poster session for participants to present their own work. Submission instructions are available here.

Key Points:

Dates:                         2-5 April 2015
Poster Call Deadline:  4 March 2015
Location:                     Tokyo, Japan
Any enquiries regarding the event should be directed to darwin@langev.tokyo.

We hope to see you in Tokyo!

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Serotonin and short-term/long-term orientation

This week I discovered that an analysis using Causal Graphs that James and I did in 2013 has been backed up by more recent data.  This demonstrates the power of Causal Graph analysis, which we’ll be discussing in our workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences (submission deadline extended!)

A recent paper demonstrates a correlation between various genetic factors and life history strategies (Minkov & Bond, 2015).  Minkov & Bond find that the prevalence of three gene polymorphisms (5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter gene, the androgen receptor gene AR and the dopamine receptor gene DRD4) correlate with measures of how willing people are to take risks, such as long-term/short-term orientation.

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We’re written before about 5-HTTLPR (here and here), which was previously associated with individualism/collectivism.  However, the paper above, and a previous one in 2014 by Minkov, Blagoev & Bond, find that the correlation is stronger for long-term/short-term orientation.

What’s interesting for us is that James and I predicted this in our 2013 paper on spurious correlations (the one with acacia trees and traffic accidents).  Here’s figure 4 from our paper, which was generated using a causal graph algoritm (explained in more detail in this post):

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The relevant part is here, which predicts that 5-HTTLPR prevalence is causally related to Long-term/short-term orientation, but is causally independent from collectivism:

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We suggested that the relationship between 5-HTTLPR and collectivism is mediated by the probability of migrating into harsher climates (a kind of risk-taking), and produced a computational model to demonstrate the principle (we also did some analyses which showed that measures of climate are correlated with 5-HTTLPR, but we haven’t reported these).

The more recent papers above also suggest that the genetic traits are linked with long-term/short-term orientation, but did so my greatly expanding the sample of genetic prevalence.  So how did we get our result?  In our analysis, we averaged 5-HTTLPR prevalence across countries, which is not realistic.  This makes me worried that the correlations are being inflated by non-independence of the samples.

The authors are confident of the robustness of the correlation:

“If all these associations were spurious, their association would be miraculous, especially at the national-regional level. If there is no real association between the LHSGF and the reported measures of LHS and TO, what then explains the extremely high correlations?”

However, as our paper argues, spurious correlations are more likely when datapoints are linked through historical descent or borrowing (Galton’s problem).  In the case of this paper, genetic traits are obviously historically related, and it’s likely that cultural values and life history strategies are also culturally transmitted.

I tried testing whether the correlation is robust to historical or contact relationships.  I used geographic proximity as a proxy for how closely related different cultures are.  For each country, I found the geographic coordinates of the capital city.  The graphs below demonstrate that there’s at least some geographic clustering (and a hit of a founder effect for the genetic data, as predicted by our migration model):

Geographic distribution of the genetic index

Geographic distribution of the genetic index

Geographic distribution of the life history strategy index

Geographic distribution of the life history strategy index

I then calculated the distance between each pair of countries in geographic terms (great circle distance), the National life history strategy genetic factor index and the genetic factors.  (for the genetic factors, I did a principal components analysis, as in Mikov & Bond, and used the first component, which had an eigen value of 2.62 and explained  65.5% of the variance, compared to Mikov & Bond’s 2.04, and 68%).

This gives us three distance matrices:  distance in miles, distance in life history strategy and distance in genetic traits.  I then used a Mantel test to compare these.

Genetic and life history measures are correlated (r = 0.88, p < 0.0001), as in the paper above (in the regression, r = 0.78-0.84).  Both the genetic and life history measures were correlated with geographic distance (r = 0.36, p < 0.0001; r = 0.27, p = 0.0003), which suggests that they are not independent (i.e. a country is likely to be more similar to its neighbour than a distant culture).

However, there is still a significant correlation between genetic and life history measures when controlling for geographic distance (r = 0.87, p = 0.0001).  In fact, the correlation is barely affected at all when partialling out the geographic distance.

So, it appears that the correlation is somewhat robust to controlling for non-independence.  But will it play out in the long-term?

Source data and analysis script: MikovBond_Mantel

Edit: Michael Minkov has been in touch, and argues that psychological phenomena, such as happiness, values, attitudes etc. can’t be borrowed across cultures.  They depend on particular economic conditions, which also can’t be borrowed in the same way that a word or an artefact can be borrowed.

Edit2: Above, I used raw distance, but log distance is probably a better measure.  Both genetic index and life history index are more strongly correlated with log geographic distance (r = 0.42, p < 0.0001; r = 0.35, p < 0.0001).  However, there’s not much difference in the correlation between genetic and life history measures when controlling for log geographic distance (r = 0.86, p < 0.0001).

Evolve an App Name: Results

On Thursday I ran an experiment to evolve an app name.  And here’s the name that won:

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I’m not sure if I could cope with having to say ‘Lingo Bingo’ for the next two months, but we’ll see.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Show the participant 10 app names for 20 seconds
  • Hide the names and ask the participant to recall them
  • Pass on what they recall as the stimuli for the next participant to remember

(you can still take part in the experiment here)

We predicted that the most striking, memorable names would be remembered and passed on, while the less memorable ones would be selected out.  That is, the names would evolve to fit the brains of app-users by being repeatedly learned and produced (iterated learning):

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54 people took part in the experiment.

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