Memetic Sophistry

Over at the Psychology Today blog complex, Joseph Carroll is taking Norman Holland to task on remarks that Holland made concerning the relationship between the reader of a literary text and the text itself. Though I disagree with Carroll on many matters, I agree with him on this one particular issue. Beyond that, I think his critique of Holland can also be applied to Susan Blackmore’s equivocations on memes. Here’s what Carroll says about Holland:

This whole way of thinking is a form of scholastic sophistry, useless and sterile. It produces verbal arguments that consist only in fabricated and unnecessary confusions, confusions like that which you produce as your conclusion in the passage you cited from your book: “the reader constructs everything” (p. 176). This conclusion seems plausible because it slyly blends two separate meanings of the word “constructs.” One meaning is that our brains assemble percepts into mental images. That meaning is correct. The other meaning is that our brains assemble percepts that are not radically constrained by the signals produced in the book. That meaning is incorrect. Once you have this kind of ambiguity at work for you, you can shuffle back and forth between the two meanings, sometimes suggesting the quite radical notion that books don’t “impose” any constraints—any meanings—on readers; and sometimes retreating into the safety of the correct meaning: that our brains assemble percepts.

Blackmore equivocates in a similar fashion on the question of whether or not memes are active agents. Here’s a snippet from a TED talk she gave last year:

The way to think about memes, though, is to think, why do they spread? They’re selfish information, they get copied if they can. But some of them will be copied because they’re good, or true, or useful, or beautiful. Some of them will be copied even though they’re not. Some, it’s quite hard to tell why.

Here she talks of memes as though they are agents of some kind, they’re selfish and they try to get copied. A bit later she says:

So think of it this way. Imagine a world full of brains and far more memes than can possibly find homes. The memes are trying to get copied, trying, in inverted commas, i.e., that’s the shorthand for, if they can get copied they will. They’re using you and me as their propagating copying machinery, and we are the meme machines.

Here memes are using us as machines for propagating themselves. And then we have this passage where she talks about a war between memes and genes:

So you get an arms race between the genes which are trying to get the humans to have small economical brains and not waste their time copying all this stuff, and the memes themselves, like the sounds that people made and copied – in other words, what turned out to be language – competing to get the brains to get bigger and bigger. So the big brain on this theory of driven by the memes.

The term “meme,” as we know, was coined by Richard Dawkins, who is also responsible for anthropomorphizing genes as selfish agents in biological evolution. Dawkins knows perfectly well that genes aren’t agents, and is quite capable of explicating that selfishness in terms that eliminate the anthropomorphism, which is but a useful shorthand, albeit a shorthand that has caused a great deal of mischief.

And one of the most pernicious bits of mischief is providing an example that Dawkins and others, such as Dan Dennett and Susan Blackmore, have to use to authorize talk about memes as agents. The problem here is that no one in memetics, as this pseudo-science brands itself, has been able to explicate memetic processes in a way that is both satisfyingly detailed in its treatment of mind and brain and that eliminates the anthropomorphic agency figuratively conferred on memes.

I called Blackmore on this point in a comment on her recent NYTimes post, The Third Replicator (in which she posits temes in addition to genes and memes). She’d referred to some of my work in a misleading way. Here’s part of my response:

Blackmore has misstated my problem with memes, asserting that it is the TERM I do not like. Not so. I think the term is brilliant, which is why I use it. What I object to is the USE of the term to indicate quasi-autonomous bots that go hopping about from brain to brain commandeering neural real estate in competition with other one another. I see no evidence that such entities exist and find no theoretical value in positing their existence.

While her Times post was relatively free of talk about memes-as-agents, that post was also linked to her TED talk, which is why I’ve quoted it here. Here is how she responded to my remark:

I apologise for misstating your problem. I understand the difference. However, I do not think of memes as “quasi-autonomous bots” hopping from brain to brain but rather more simplistically as all the information we come across, day after day, hour after hour, and have to deal with. Some we use and forget, some we effectively copy on to other people, most we do neither. This includes stories in the morning paper, adverts, emails, songs, jokes, theories, designs for buildings or tea pots, images, dance steps, and countless other things.

At this point she’s clearly talking about humans as agents disposing of memes as they will. She continues:

“Commandeering neural real estate” makes it sound as though the neurons ought to be doing something else, but no, they are doing what they are designed to do, process all this stuff. Inevitably there is competition because there is just too much stuff for any single brain (piece of “neural real estate”) to cope with.

Note that neurons have no become agents, agents ‘designed’ to ‘process all this stuff.’ Given that neurons are living cells, they have such agency as is appropriate to cells. They ‘seek’ nutrients and ‘eliminate’ waste. And somehow ‘all this stuff’ gets processed, perhaps as some emergent property of billions of interlinked neurons in a nervous system ‘designed’ to process stuff. She concludes her reply to my criticism with memes as agents, competing to get copied:

You say you find no evidence that these entities exist but surely you cannot mean that songs, stories, theories, and stories in newspapers don’t exist. In my view, these are the memes. They exist and they inevitably compete to be copied and thus to continue existing.

And so it goes. As long as memetics is built on such sophistry, it will get nowhere, which is where it’s been ever since people tried to turn Dawkins’s casual suggestion in The Selfish Gene into a tool for studying culture.

X-posted at New Savanna.

4 thoughts on “Memetic Sophistry”

  1. Hi Bill, I was wondering what your view is on William Croft’s position where, instead of cultural replicators being concepts in minds, he treats human behaviours, the production of linguemes being one example, as replicators?

  2. I’ve thought a good deal about Croft’s take on language, which deservese to be taken seriously. After all, unlike the memeticists, he has detailed knowledge of an important cultural system. What I have to say can’t be easily summarized, but, yes, I think he’s on the right track. I give fairly careful consideration to his views in this longish post (or you can find it in this downloadable piece). Before I get around to linguemes I discuss his game-theory derived account of linguistic communication. The important point of that discussion is that meaning is negotiated by speakers, not miraculously passed though a virtual tube. In that context, I get around to leguemes. But I go through the emic/etic distinction first.

  3. Blackmore seems to be clear in these passages. What “sophistry”?

    As for alleged anthropomorphism, biologists have been doing this at least since Waddington’s “The strategy of the genes” – in 1957. The issue is not when the memeticists are going to stop, but when the non-biologists are going stop ignorantly patronizing the experts.

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