Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks

An Essay in Cognitive Rhetoric

I want to step back from the main thread of discussion and look at something else: the discussion itself. Or, at any rate, at Dennett’s side of the argument. I’m interested in how he thinks and, by extension, in how conventional meme theorists think.

And so we must ask: Just how does thinking work, anyhow? What is the language of thought? Complicated matters indeed. For better or worse, I’m going to have to make it quick and dirty.

Embodied Cognition

In one approach the mind’s basic idiom is some form of logical calculus, so-called mentalese. While some aspects of thought may be like that, I do not think it is basic. I favor a view called embodied cognition:

Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.

In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing.

One aspect of cognition is that we think in image schemas, simple prelinguistic structures of experience. One such image schema is that of a container: Things can be in a container, or outside a container; something can move from one container to another; it is even possible for one container to contain another.

Memes in Containers

The container scheme seems fundamental to Dennett’s thought about cultural evolution. He sees memes as little things that are contained in a larger thing, the brain; and these little things, these memes, move from one brain to another.

This much is evident on the most superficial reading of what he says, e.g. “such classic memes as songs, poems and recipes depended on their winning the competition for residence in human brains” (from New Replicators, The). While the notion of residence may be somewhat metaphorical, the locating of memes IN brains is not; it is literal.

What I’m suggesting is that this containment is more than just a contingent fact about memes. That would suggest that Dennett has, on the one hand, arrived at some concept of memes and, on the other hand, observed that those memes just happen to exist in brains. Yes, somewhere Over There we have this notion of memes as the genetic element of culture; that’s what memes do. But Dennett didn’t first examine cultural process to see how they work. As I will argue below, like Dawkins he adopted the notion by analogy with biology and, along with it, the physical relationship between genes and organisms. The container schema is thus foundational to the meme concept and dictates Dennett’s treatment of examples.

The rather different conception of memes that I have been arguing in these notes is simply unthinkable in those terms. If memes are (culturally active) properties of objects and processes in the external world, then they simply cannot be contained in brains. A thought process based on the container schema cannot deal with memes as I have been conceiving them. Continue reading “Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks”

Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I’ve been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:

The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory… The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.

Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule and the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture. Continue reading “Cultural Evolution, So What?”

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).

Intentional Change

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

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 “Information WTF 2: The Candy Itself”

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 “The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong”

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?

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.
© 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.


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

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 “Stir-fry Memetics”

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 “The Memetic Changeover: When and Why?”

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 “Culture Memes Information WTF!”