Tag Archives: meme

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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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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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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

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Roles in Cultural Selection: Replicators, Interactors, and Beneficiaries, or, Where’s the Memes?

Once again, cultural evolution, and the problem of memes: What are they? Where are they? What do they do? While the general case does interest me, culture is so various that it is impossible to think about it directly. One has to think about specific cases. As details are important, I want to choose a fairly specific case, that of jazz in mid-20th-Century America. I want you to imagine that you’re in a jazz club in, say, Philadelphia, in, say, mid-October of 1952. It’s 1:30 in the morning, and the tune is Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity.” The piano player counts it off–ah one, ah two, one two three four

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need a little conceptual equipment before considering the example. It’s the conceptual equipment that’s in question. Make no mistake, the concept of memes is conceptual equipment, and it’s confused and confusing.

Roles in Cultural Selection

Genes and phenotypes play certain roles in a more or less standard account of biological evolution. The phenotype interacts with the environment, where it either succeeds or fails at reproduction, depending on the “fit” between its traits and that environment. Where the phenotype is successful at reproduction, it is the genes which are said to carry heredity from one generation to the next.

In one very widespread account genes are said to be replicators. That is to say, replication is the role they play in evolutionary change. Here’s what Peter Godfrey-Smith has to say about that (The Replicator in Retrospect, Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000): 403-423.):

In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins had argued that individual genes must be seen as the units of selection in evolutionary processes within sexual populations. This is primarily because the other possible candidates, notably whole organisms and groups, do not “replicate.” Organisms and groups are ephemeral, like clouds in the sky or dust storms in the desert. Only a replicator, which can figure in selective processes over many generations, can be a unit of selection.

At the same time Dawkins coined the term “meme” to name entities filling the replicator role in cultural evolution. Later on he used the term “vehicle” to designate the entity that interacts with the environment. In biological evolution it is phenotypes that are the vehicles. In cultural evolution, well, that’s a matter of some dispute. And that more general dispute–what are the roles in cultural evolution and what kinds of things occupy them?–is what interests me.

However, I don’t particularly like the term “vehicle.” As Godfrey-Smith has noted, following others, it is a gene-centric term, characterizing what entities do from the so-called “gene’s eye” perspective. I’d prefer a more neutral perspective and so will use a term coined by Richard Hull, “interactor.” Here are definitions as Godfrey-Smith gives them:

Replicator: an entity that passes on its structure largely intact in successive replications.
Interactor: an entity that interacts as a cohesive whole with its environment in such a way that this interaction causes replication to be differential. Continue reading

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In Search of the Wild Replicator


The key to the treasure is the treasure.
– John Barth

In view of Sean’s post about Andrew Smith’s take on linguistic replicators I’ve decided to repost this rather longish note from New Savanna. I’d orignally posted it in the Summer of 2010 as part of a run-up to a post on cultural evolution for the National Humanities Center (USA); I’ve collected those notes into a downloadable PDF. Among other things the notes deal with William Croft’s notions (at least as they existed in 2000) and suggests that we’ll find language replicators on the emic side of the emic/etic distinction.

I’ve also appended some remarks I made to John Lawler in the subsequent discussion at New Savanna.

* * * * *
There’s been a fair amount of work done on language from an evolutionary point of view, which is not surprising, as historical linguistics has well-developed treatments of language lineages and taxonomy, the “stuff” of large-scale evolutionary investigation. While this work is directly relevant to a consideration of cultural evolution, however, I will not be reviewing or discussing it. For it doesn’t deal with the theoretical issues that most concern me in these posts, namely, a conceptualization of the genetic and phenotypic entities of culture. This literature is empirically oriented in a way that doesn’t depend on such matters.

The Arbitrariness of the Sign

In particular, I want to deal with the arbitrariness of the sign. Given my approach to memes, that arbitrariness would appear to eliminate the possibility that word meanings could have memetic status. For, as you may recall, I’ve defined memes to be perceptual properties – albeit sometimes very complex and abstract ones – of physical things and events. Memes can be defined over speech sounds, language gestures, or printed words, but not over the meanings of words. Note that by “meaning” I mean the mental or neural event that is the meaning of the word, what Saussure called the signified. I don’t mean the referent of the word, which, in many cases, but by no means all, would have perceptible physical properties. I mean the meaning, the mental event. In this conception, it would seem that that cannot be memetic.

That seems right to me. Language is different from music and drawing and painting and sculpture and dance, it plays a different role in human society and culture. On that basis one would expect it to come out fundamentally different on a memetic analysis.

This, of course, leaves us with a problem. If word meaning is not memetic, then how is it that we can use language to communicate, and very effectively over a wide range of cases? Not only language, of course, but everything that depends on language. Continue reading